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".

  • 5
    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 '14 at 15:02
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    Your source has several silly errors. Of course Scotland is part of Britain. – user24964 May 8 '14 at 15:20
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    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 '14 at 15:23
  • 2
    Quite unbelievable that even OS is now peddling this nonsense. Admittedly it's only on their blog and several people have already told them they're wrong. Their "justification" is:"Since the Roman’s [sic] only ever conquered the areas of modern day England and Wales, it is arguable that the name Britain originally referred only to those countries." Well we can instantly demolish that argument by the location of the Antonine Wall. – user24964 May 8 '14 at 15:59
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    Scotland would need a very big saw to leave Britain. – user24964 May 8 '14 at 17:59
up vote 6 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 includes 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.

  • 1
    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 '14 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 '14 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 '14 at 7:10
  • @Urbycoz that's a pun (does great modify "British" or "bakeoff"?) – msam May 9 '14 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 '14 at 8:50

I think the only language that calls the people inhabiting Great-Britain "Great-British" is the Breton language. In Breton, Brittany is "Breizh" (Britain) and Bretons are "Breizhiz" (British). Great Britain is "Breizh-Veur" (Great-Britain) and The people are "Breizhveuriz" (Great-British)

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.

From Wikipedia[1]:

"Brittany (French: Bretagne [bʁə.taɲ] ( listen); Breton: Breizh, pronounced [brɛjs] or [brɛχ]; Gallo: Bertaèyn, pronounced [bəʁ.taɛɲ]) is a cultural region in the north-west of France. Covering the western part of Armorica, as it was known during the period of Roman occupation, Brittany subsequently became an independent kingdom and then a duchy before being united to the Kingdom of France in 1532 as a province. Brittany has also been referred to as Less, Lesser or Little Britain (as opposed to Great Britain). It is bordered by the English Channel to the north, the Celtic Sea and the Atlantic Ocean to the west, and the Bay of Biscay to the south. Its land area is 34,023 km² (13,136 sq mi)."

So at some stage, Great Britain was used to distinguish it from Brittany (Little Britain). Great Britain[2] is the largest island in the archipelago that is the British Isles[3]. The British Isles comprises the island of Great Britain, the island of Ireland and all the smaller islands that make up the archipelago. England, Scotland and Wales make up Great Britain. As it is no longer strictly necessary to use "Great" to distinguish it from Brittany, Great Britain is often colloquially referred to as Britain.

The [United Kingdom]4 is officially the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The rest of the island of Ireland[5] is the Republic of Ireland.

The Kingdom of Great Britain[6] was formed out of the union of the English and Scottish crowns in 1707. Geographically, it comprised of the island of Great Britain and the smaller islands surrounding it (excluding the island of Ireland). When the Irish crown was merged with that of the kingdom in 1801, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was formed. When the Irish Free State (now the Republic of Ireland) seceded from the United Kingdom in 1922, what was left was the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland[7], as it still is today.

Britannia[8] was the name given by the Romans to the part of Great Britain over which they had some degree of control. That is roughly modern day England and Wales. The remaining part of Great Britain outside of Roman control was Caledonia (roughly modern day Scotland).

Now back to the original question. British[9] and Briton[10] are derived from the name the Romans used to refer to the originally Celtic peoples of Britain. The term British in particular is nowadays used colloquially to refer to anything or anyone from Great Britain, or even the UK.

The people of Brittany are referred to as Bretons[11]. It would be almost as odd to call the people of Great Britain "Great British" as it would to call Bretons "Little British".

PS. I can't add more than 2 links, so I have moved all the links to my blog.

While it is certainly not correct to refer to the inhabitants of Great Britain as 'Great British', it is nonetheless worth noting that this phrase is sometimes used to describe one of the most deeply-embedded institutions of these islands:

the Great British breakfast.

The following article provides a suitable introduction:

What's so different about the Great British breakfast?

  • 2
    Doesn't this simply mean 'the British breakfast that is great' (ie wonderful, brilliant, fantastic - other superlatives as you see fit)? And it just happens to be a nice pun on 'Great Britain'. – Kiloran_speaking Jun 19 at 10:40
  • In a lifetime of being british I don't think I've ever heard anyone refer to the 'Great British breakfast'. Your source say it is 'often referred to as a 'full English breakfast', or simply 'full English'' which is correct. There are breakfasts that get called a 'Full Scottish' but not codified to the same extent and might include kippers or haggis. In my experience 'Great British breakfast' is used by columnists who have decided it is bad for us and don't want England to have all the blame. – Spagirl Jun 19 at 11:50
  • Is it a pun? Well, yes and no. It is insofar as the traditional breakfast is both great and Great British. But without the meaning 'Great British' it is unlikely that 'great' would have become one of the adjectives of choice. Far stronger descriptors would more likely have come to the fore (such as 'superb' or 'magnificent'). – The Advocate Jun 19 at 12:12
  • I beg to differ with regard to the title having negative connotations. It is the name of a national competition (cf bfff.co.uk/winner-aviko-great-british-breakfast-revealed ) and if you listen to the sample below the sleeve jacket of the following recording amazon.co.uk/The-Great-British-Breakfast/dp/B008XHMX5C you will see that it is, in fact, cause for celebration (despite the fact 'full English' is the phrase used in spoken language). – The Advocate Jun 19 at 12:17

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