Many big cities have their names preceded by Greater. Why not just Great? Does Greater indicate that the city is ambitious to expand itself?

Why is Greater not used for country names such as Great Britain? Is it just due to historical reasons?


7 Answers 7


In this context (greater Toronto) greater means “an area greater than the city itself” and “greater Toronto” is a shortened version of “the greater Toronto area”. Greater describes/modifies area rather than Toronto, giving a size contrast (greater) rather than describing the goodness of the city (great).

  • 4
    In fact, GTA is the most common name for 416+905, followed by "the Greater Toronto Area" and in third place "Greater Toronto." I have also seen "Greater London" in the UK. Oct 26, 2011 at 23:24
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    But great doesn't mean good in Great Britain either, it means big.
    – Hugo
    Oct 27, 2011 at 5:24
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    @DietrichEpp Exactly. "Good-ness" has nothing to do with either Great (Britain) or Greater (Toronto/Manchester/London) in this question.
    – Hugo
    Oct 27, 2011 at 8:00
  • "Greater" is relative - it's greater than something else. With "Great Britain" (guess) maybe there's no "Lesser Britain" to be greater than? It's greater than something else (England, Scotland or Wales indivually) but not greater than a smaller thing called "Britain". IIRC "Britain" and "Great Britain" are synonyms. In any case, it's history - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Britain#Derivation_of_.22Great.22
    – user11931
    Oct 27, 2011 at 8:07
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    @Steve314 : Actually Brittany is often considered as "Lesser Britain"
    – Xavier T.
    Oct 27, 2011 at 9:20

Great means big, greater means bigger.

So Greater Manchester is the larger metropolitan area around the city of Manchester in the middle.

However, Great Britain is the larger of the two separate and distinct Britains, the other being Brittany in north-west France. In French, Great Britain is Grande Bretagne and Brittany is just Bretagne. Brittany has also been referred to as Less, Lesser or Little Britain.

  • It's not about larger but older. Yes, older brother is usually larger. Jul 29, 2023 at 7:25

The answer is that the expression is based on how we, as humans, interpret geography. We refer to smaller, relatively unknown areas by the name of a larger, more well-known, area the smaller area is near.

By saying "Greater Toronto", we identify the city of Toronto and the smaller areas close by, at the same time acknowledging that these smaller areas are not, in reality, part of the city of Toronto. It is the same as saying "Toronto and its surrounding suburbs."

This nature can be observed when meeting someone unfamiliar to the area in question. If Sally lived in the suburbs of Washington DC, and met somebody from California at a conference, Sally would say "I'm from Washington DC", even though she lives in Falls Church, VA, and does not live within the boundaries of the city.

When someone asks me where I live, I would respond with "Charleston, WV" even though I don't live within the city limits, and the city is a 20 minute drive from my home.

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    This one really distinguishes itself from other answers!!
    – Terry Li
    Oct 26, 2011 at 20:49
  • +1, but I think you've got your second sentence mixed around. We're referring to a larger area by the name of the smaller, well-known area.
    – DCShannon
    Mar 31, 2016 at 18:49
  • @DCShannon, it is how one looks at the issue. When I said smaller areas, I was not speaking of the total population or area that identifies with the well-known area, but rather each the smaller enclaves that surround the larger, more well-known place. When one looks at them in aggregate, they are larger than and more populous than the more well-known areas. Apr 5, 2016 at 16:33
  • Alright, that seems a bit awkward, but I see what you're saying. Basically "refer to smaller, relatively unknown areas and a larger, more well-known area the smaller area is near by the name of the larger".
    – DCShannon
    Apr 5, 2016 at 16:37
  • @DCShannon, exactly. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… Apr 11, 2016 at 17:28

Greater means “the metropolitan area surrounding”. “Greater Toronto” refers to Toronto and its suburbs.

Great does not mean the area surrounding. It is used in the name “Great Britain” to distinguish it from “Little Britain”, a.k.a. Brittany.

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    I know what it means, but why choose the word "Greater" rather than "Great"?
    – Terry Li
    Oct 26, 2011 at 20:20
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    Great Britain is not a metropolitan area surrounding Little Britain (Brittany). Check a map.
    – MetaEd
    Aug 31, 2012 at 17:12

In the phrase greater Toronto the adjective greater is not describing Toronto itself; the phrase as a whole refers to the urban area which includes Toronto. Thus it includes the small cities and suburbs within the entire built-up area in and adjoining the central city.

The phrase "great Toronto" would be taken as a description of Toronto itself. Great is a simple adjective; greater is a comparative. So the phrase greater Toronto is comparing Toronto to something else; the implicit something else is the entire urban area, which of course is larger.

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    +1 Great Toronto would be at best ambiguous, and at worst misunderstood.
    – Daniel
    Oct 26, 2011 at 20:29
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    If you lived just outside Toronto you wouldn't consider it ambiguous, it's just wrong :-) Oct 26, 2011 at 23:25

Consider the list of any areas that could be referred to as "Toronto." Then, find the greater of these - the largest one. This is the "Greater Toronto area". This is in contrast to "Toronto Proper", which would be within the area defined in some document as explicitly being Toronto, and would not include outlying areas, even if they are just a kilometer from the border.


Lots of correct answers. A simple way of thinking of this simply to ask "Greater than what, eh?" - the answer being "Greater than the city of Toronto proper." Include Mississauga, Oakville, etc, etc..

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    +1 With a little hindsight, people can certainly come up with more and more beautifully crafted answers!
    – Terry Li
    Oct 27, 2011 at 13:47

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