I've looked up the etymology of both words, and here they are:

English : "people or speech of England," O.E. Englisc, from Engle (pl.) "the Angles," the name of one of the Germanic groups that overran the island 5c., supposedly so-called because Angul, the land they inhabited on the Jutland coast, was shaped like a fish hook

England: O.E. Englaland, lit. "the land of the Angles"

Both, as you can see, do not list the dates on which they were coined. My question is, was as one word was coined before another, which was coined earlier? Does anyone have any definitive information regarding this?

2 Answers 2


I don't think the Angles landed in the British Isles and said:

"Let's call our language Ænglisc now that we moved to this new land!"

Before they migrated, and that took many years, their homeland was already called Englaland or even Engla and they already named their Germanic language Englisc. The only difference is that this place was Angeln in the south-east part of Schleswig, in present-day Germany.

So to answer your question, the word English was used before England was called England but at that time the word England (or its ancestor) already existed. It was just used to designate a completely different place.

As for the English people the Angles themselves were collectively referred to as Engelcynn (as in kin) or Engelfolc (as in folk, German volk).


The rest of the entry for "English" says:

The term was used from earliest times without distinction for all the Germanic invaders -- Angles, Saxon, Jutes (Bede's gens Anglorum) -- and applied to their group of related languages by Alfred the Great. After 1066, of the population of England (as distinguished from Normans and French), a distinction which lasted only about a generation. In pronunciation, "En-" has become "In-," but the older spelling has remained. Meaning "English language or literature as a subject at school" is from 1889. Old English is from early 13c.

Alfred the Great ruled from 871 to 899, so the term English to refer to language can be roughly dated to this era. Although English surely existed as a set of dialects or a language by this point (as Old English dates from around the 5th century), it is unclear at what specific point "English" became the language name. However, there is some reference here which says that speakers of Old English called themselves "Englisc"--which may mean that the word for the group of people dates back way before Alfred named their language (which makes sense--why would you necessarily name your own language).

The name England can apparently be found in its current form from the 1500s, with use dating back to 897:

The name "England" is derived from the Old English name Engla land, which means "land of the Angles".[15] The Angles were one of the Germanic tribes that settled in Great Britain during the Early Middle Ages. The Angles came from the Angeln peninsula in the Bay of Kiel area of the Baltic Sea.[16] According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first known use of "England" to refer to the southern part of the island of Great Britain occurs in 897, and its modern spelling was first used in 1538

So, from these, there are two options. Either Englisc was first coined by the Angles and other invaders themselves, which would date the term before Alfred the Great (and possibly way back to the 5th century).

Or, both terms developed within years of each other. I would hazard a guess that Alfred the Great adapted the term English while he was king. This puts both terms in the period between 871 and 899. Since there is a set date for England's coining, which was toward the later part of Alfred's reign, it may be safe to say that English came first.

Either way, it seems as if English in some form predates England. However, there are no solid sources I could find for or against this.

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