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Is it just because of the colonial history of Britain?

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I would call this a History question. –  fredsbend Jun 5 at 18:08
    
For what it's worth, I always assumed it was the same kind of usage as "Greater New York" or "Greater Boston" -- meaning the city itself plus all the surrounding suburbs which are heavily tied to it by proximity and economics. In that usage, Great(er) Britain would be Britain plus the surrounding countries it had absorbed most directly. But that's probably incorrect. –  keshlam Jun 6 at 1:14
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2 Answers 2

up vote 38 down vote accepted

Ptolemy referred to the larger island as great Britain (megale Britannia) and to Ireland as little Britain (mikra Brettania) in his work, Almagest (147–148 AD).

Later on it was called Brittanie Majore to distinguish it from Brittany in France, which was also mostly inhabited by Celts.

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It's worth noting that in Irish we refer to Wales as "Little Britain" (An Bhreatain Bheag). –  Sean D Jun 6 at 0:30
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@SeanD and in Wales we refer to Ireland as Iwerddon, which is awfully similar to Ywerddon, which means fairy land. –  Ilythya Jun 6 at 9:08
    
The year 147...damn Britain is ancient... –  Starkers Jun 6 at 18:26
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Great Britain

c.1400, Grete Britaigne. As opposed to Brittany.

Brittany

French Bretagne, named for 5c. Romano-Celtic refugees from the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain who crossed the channel and settled there (see Britain). The Little Britain or Less Britain (lasse brutaine, c.1300) of old, contrasted with the Great Britain.

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So what you're saying is that "Great" means "Large". Always best to be explicit! (Although I had thought that it was "Great" after the Union with Scotland, rather than compared to Brittany; I didn't realise it was three hundred years older.) –  Andrew Leach Jun 5 at 14:58
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"Great Britain" is the island comprising England, Scotland, and Wales. Comes from the Romans I believe, in contrast to "Little Britain" which was Ireland. –  Rupe Jun 5 at 15:06
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I think some people think of "Great Britain" as if it referred to a country (the UK). It doesn't, except when using some specialised senses of "country". In some sporting contexts, for example, the national boundaries of the "countries" used do indeed fall between the islands instead of between the nations. It's confusing, especially since the adjective "British" is often used to mean "of the UK". –  Rupe Jun 5 at 15:27
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And then there's another meaning of "Great Britain". In "The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland", it refers to the union of England, Scotland, and Wales (the nations, in other words including the islands that belonged to them). –  Rupe Jun 5 at 15:37
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@Doc But I meant the plural. The nations including the islands that belong to them (The Isle of Wight, Anglesey, loads of Scottish islands). In that context "Great Britain", described geographically, comprises more than one island. –  Rupe Jun 5 at 18:50
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protected by tchrist Jun 7 at 2:20

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