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People from Britain are referred to as British.

However I recently learned that Britain is not technically the same as Great Britain.

Source 1

Great Britain and Britain do not mean the same thing. Great Britain is made up of Scotland, England and Wales, where as Britain is just England and Wales.

Source 2 (emphasis mine)

Great Britain is the official collective name of of England, Scotland and Wales and their associated islands. It does not include Northern Ireland and therefore should never be used interchangeably with ‘UK’ – something you see all too often. Here at Ordnance Survey, we’re responsible for mapping Great Britain, which is why we don’t make maps of Northern Ireland. Technically, if you lose the ‘Great,’ Britain only refers to England and Wales.

So is it accurate to describe someone from Great Britain as Great British?

I've certainly never heard it. But I wonder if there was ever a time when the phrase was ever in common usage? (NGrams seems to suggest it was most commonly used in the 1830s- although some of these uses are for objects not people.)

Update: It seems my question has sparked an side-argument about exactly what the differences are between "Britain" and "Great Britain". This was not the intention of the question. I simply wanted to ask whether it has ever been acceptable to call a person "Great British".

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I guess you would describe someone from Gread Britain, but not from Britain as scottish. –  skymninge May 8 at 14:58
This is not true. 'Britain' is a geographical entity, namely the island containing the countries of England, Scotland and Wales. I believe (but do not know) that the 'Great' modifier dates from the Roman period, and was used to differentiate Britannia Major from Britannia Minor (which today broadly corresponds with Brittany in France). I'd love to know if this latter point is true. Regardless, 'Britain' and 'Great Britain' are synonymous, and I have never heard of a person being referred to as 'Great British'. –  568ml May 8 at 15:02
Your source has several silly errors. Of course Scotland is part of Britain. –  user24964 May 8 at 15:20
No problem @Urbycoz, I'm happy to help. I didn't post it as an answer as I don't have any useful, substantiated information for you on whether it's correct to describe a person as 'Great British'. My point was regarding your reasons for asking the question, rather than addressing the question itself :) –  568ml May 8 at 15:23
Well, this issue may solve itself after the September referendum on Scottish independence :) –  oerkelens May 8 at 17:51

2 Answers 2

up vote 3 down vote accepted

As Spork implies, this is a complicated issue. However excluding Scotland from Britain is wrong under any definition and the Ordinance Survey source cited should be ashamed of themselves.

Great Britain has two meanings. In the geographical sense, it means the large island comprising the regions England, Wales and Scotland (Great Britain). As a tiny tweak to this definition it also include minor islands very close to the mainland, particularly those with no separate political identity (for example, Anglesey, the Isle of Wight or Portsea).

In the political sense, Great Britain also includes all the islands which are part of the United Kingdom's territory. So it includes all the Scottish islands such as the Hebrides, Orkneys, and Shetlands but does not include the Isle of Man or the Channel Islands.

It also does not include Northern Ireland. That's why the full name of the United Kingdom is "The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland". Here Great Britain is being used in the political sense of course. Great Britain is sometimes lazily used when the United Kingdom is meant but this is incorrect.

When used in any sort of politicial context the word Britain should denote the sovereign state of the United Kingdom (of Great Britain and Northern Ireland). Of course it is also used as a shorthand for the island of Great Britain (in the geographical sense) when it doesn't include Northern Ireland.

Historically the Kingdom of England (which was a political entity including the territory of Wales) joined with the Kingdom of Scotland in 1707 to form the Kingdom of Great Britain. Act of Union This later merged with the Kingdom of Ireland to become the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, then became the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in 1922 Partition of Ireland

To answer the original question: No, Great British is incorrect - or at least extremely unusual and odd-sounding - for describing a person. British is the term for a citizen of the United Kingdom and can also serve in the geographical sense. The adjective "Great British" is occasionally used, often in an ironic way, but not referring to individuals.

At no time has Britain ever meant England and Wales. However later this year Scotland is holding a referendum on whether to leave the United Kingdom.

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And then, really, the Dutch get scolded for making things complicated when they dare mention there's a difference between the Netherlands and Holland. –  oerkelens May 8 at 17:50
I didn't even mention the term "British Isles" which is usually claimed to be a purely geographical term, however the Channel Islands, the Faroes, and the Shetlands are clearly included/excluded/included on political grounds. –  user24964 May 8 at 17:56
"The adjective "Great British" is occasionally used, often in an ironic way, but not referring to individuals." e.g. The Great British Bake-off –  Urbycoz May 9 at 7:10
@Urbycoz that's a pun (does great modify "British" or "bakeoff"?) –  msam May 9 at 8:26
@msam I never took it that way. I thought "Great" was added to make it sound grandiose- ironic for a cookery program. –  Urbycoz May 9 at 8:50

The source of the troubles here is that not only does England not mean Britain, Great Britain not mean Britain, and England not mean Britain, Great Britain does not even mean Great Britain, depending on what interpretation of 'Great Britain' is used. See "Use of the term Great Britain", for example, or CPG Grey's video.

In the end, you can refer to them as 'British people', 'Britons' (e.g. on the semi-recent 100 Greatest Britons list), 'Brits'... Or "English, Scottish and Welsh excluding the people of Northern Ireland".. But not 'Great British'. Unless they are great British people.

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