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According to Wiktionary, you can't use "a British" to refer to individual British people, though you can use it to refer to a race of people as a whole, but you can use "an Australian", and this matches what I already suspect.

I can't think of a good Google Ngram query to confirm this.

Is this the case? And if so, why is there a difference?

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People do use "a Brit" (or I've heard "a Briton") but not "a British". –  simchona Jan 6 '13 at 7:59
    
You can say a Briton. In the movies (Lawrence of Arabia in particular) you hear Arabs calling Brits English, as in "Hey, English, do you know how to ride a camel?", but that's not standard. –  user21497 Jan 6 '13 at 8:00
    
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An Australian would refer to an individual British person as "a pom". Problem bloody solved! –  Fortiter Jan 6 '13 at 11:38
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@Fortiter - not 'a whingeing Pom' then? A step forward in international relations! –  Mynamite Jan 7 '13 at 0:26

3 Answers 3

up vote 9 down vote accepted

Those of us who live in these offshore islands often have some difficulty in describing ourselves. We can say that we’re British (although some residents of Northern Ireland may have a problem with that), but there’s no ready equivalent of the sentence She’s an Australian. She’s a Briton is just about possible, but sounds contrived. Britisher might also be found, particularly in films about WWII, but it’s not current.

The difficulty arises because British is an adjective, and only an adjective. Like certain other adjectives it can be used as the head of a noun phrase in some contexts. ‘The adjective-headed noun phrase usually refers to a group of people with the characteristic described by the adjective . . . The definite article is typically used with adjectives as noun phrase heads’ (‘Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English’). This means that we can speak of the British, just as we can speak of the elderly and the poor, but we can no more speak of *a British than we can speak of *an elderly or *a poor.

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The same pattern can be seen with Spanish, Swedish, Danish etc versus German, Italian, European and so on. –  Mr Lister Jan 6 '13 at 8:39
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@MrLister Spaniards, Swedes, and Danes have no such trouble — nor, historically, did Englishmen. –  tchrist Jan 6 '13 at 8:41
    
I didn't try to say there was trouble... just pointing out that there's a pattern to see here beyond British vs Australian. –  Mr Lister Jan 6 '13 at 8:42
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@BarrieEngland So you’re saying that the men made up the rougher half of the populace? I’m sure the fairer sex would have no disagreement with you on that. :) –  tchrist Jan 6 '13 at 8:58
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@Colin Fine. Yes, perhaps that's it. -ish words are always adjectives, and only adjectives? –  Barrie England Jan 6 '13 at 9:49

You can't say a British: British is an adjectival, Briton is the demonym.

The demonym describes the person from a place. So:

  1. The Briton is cheeky. (noun)

The adjectival can be used as an adjectival noun, or an adjective:

  1. The British are cheeky. (adj. noun)
  2. The British vase is bronze. (adj)
  3. The Chinese vase is made of porcelain; the British, of steel. (adj, then adj. noun)

Usually adjectivals and demonyms are the same, but there are exceptions.

-ish adjectivals have irregular demonyms, -ese adjectivals used as demonyms sound old-fashioned ("He is a Chinese"), and others are truly exceptional: French to French[wo]man, etc.

See adjectivals and demonyms for nations.

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In an article linked to the one you cited, it notes how “[i]n French, the word britannique (‘British’) is restricted to more official contexts and tends to be used for governments rather than for individuals.” This is the same in Spanish, where británico is little used, and when it is, tends to apply more to governments than people. As with French anglais, the Spanish normally just use inglés in regular speech. –  tchrist Jan 6 '13 at 9:11

'Ancient Britons' is a recognised term in history and archaeology referring to the original inhabitants.

Brits is used but can often have negative associations, eg the Brits behaving badly abroad, getting into drunken fights with football supporters. I would always refer to someone as British and not a Brit or Briton.

Other countries have a similar adjectival word but for some reason adding 'man' or 'woman' doesn't sound as clumsy eg Frenchman. The individual countries of the UK will happily call their citizens an English/Irish/Scots/Welshman/woman but I pretty sure I've never seen Britishman/woman written all as one word.

Which still leaves and unsatisfactory gap if you wanted to say - "I shared a car with a German, an Australian and a ....?"

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Well, you could call him an Englishman, a Scot, or a Welshman. The Manx and Channel Islanders probably have to fend for themselves, though. –  tchrist Jan 7 '13 at 1:34
    
@tchrist. Only in cases where the passenger was male. Even a Scot suggests the presence of large quantities of testosterone. –  Barrie England Jan 7 '13 at 8:30
    
I don’t perceive any such negative association with a Brit. It’s a perfectly neutral word for me, to the same extent that an American is. Americans abroad have plenty of bad rep, but saying that you shared a car with an American is perfectly neutral. I doubt the Brit Awards consider their name particularly negative, either. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 3 at 17:58

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