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Some islands are called isle like "Isle of Man", "Isle of Tortuga" and the "British Isles". Other islands are called island, like "Island of Malta" or "Island of Cyprus".

What is the difference between the words? How to know if a land mass confined by water is called an isle or an island?

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up vote 6 down vote accepted

In practice, there is no difference, they can be used interchangeably but isle is archaic. Anything called isle can also be referred to as an island.

I had thought that isle was just an archaic version of island, but it turns out the words are actually not related:

island (n.)

1590s, earlier yland (c.1300), from Old English igland "island," from ieg "island" (from Proto-Germanic *aujo "thing on the water," from PIE *akwa- "water;" see aqua-) + land "land." Spelling modified 15c. by association with similar but unrelated isle. An Old English cognate was ealand "river-land, watered place, meadow by a river." In place names, Old English ieg is often used of "slightly raised dry ground offering settlement sites in areas surrounded by marsh or subject to flooding" [Cambridge Dictionary of English Place-Names]. Related: Islander.

isle (n.)

late 13c., from Old French ile, earlier isle, from Latin insula "island," of uncertain origin, perhaps (as the Ancients guessed) from in salo "(that which is) in the sea," from ablative of salum "the open sea." The -s- was restored first in French, then in English in the late 1500s.

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In modern everyday use 'Isle' tends to be included in the name by which the place is known, such as the ones you mention plus the Isle of Skye, Isle of Mull, Isle of Wight etc. (No one says simply 'Wight' to refer to the Isle of Wight, nor 'Man' to refer to the Isle of Man.) Though you may hear the term 'island of Malta', or island of Cyprus', which are quite correct since both are islands - the word 'island' does not usually form part of the place name, by which they are called. One would normally say simply 'Malta' or 'Cyprus'. You would only use the word 'island' if you were wanting to stress the fact that they were islands. which is why I have not capitalised the i.

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I would use the "Island of Malta" or the "Island of Cyprus" when I want to reference the geographical islands. Especially when talking about events that happened before the modern political entities of Malta and Cyprus, or when talking about the ongoing territorial dispute regarding the Island of Cyprus. – Ilya Melamed Oct 16 '13 at 13:26
@IlyaMelamed By all means use those terms to refer to the geographical islands, but without the capital I for island, because that is not part of its proper name. Only proper names are capitalised. – TrevorD Oct 16 '13 at 14:02
@Ilya Melamed But I assume you wouldn't use a capital m or p if you referred to the 'mountain of Everest', or the Florida peninsula, so why would you use a capital I for island of Cyprus? The 'island of Australia' most certainly wouldn't take a capital i. Undoubtedly one speaks of Lake Superior or Lake Windemere, since the 'Lake' is part of the name; or indeed Coniston Water or Derwent Water, since those are the names, irrespective of the fact that people shorten them. – WS2 Oct 16 '13 at 14:04
The Isle of Man is, however, confusingly also called 'Mann'. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 16 '13 at 16:34
@WS2, you and TrevorD are right, I shouldn't use the capital i when referring to the island of Malta and island of Cyprus. – Ilya Melamed Oct 17 '13 at 9:45

There is no difference in the words' meanings, they both denote a landmass surrounded by water. The definition from one of the dictionaries sums it up nicely about "isle", I think:

Poetic except when cap. and part of place name; an island, esp a small one

So "isle" has the same meaning, just more poetic (it is a monosyllabic word), more often used with small islands. As for geographic names - they were named like that at some time, so someone chose "isle" over "island" while naming them.

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