English vs British: What Exactly Does ‘British’ Mean?

Foreign Students's picture

Chances are you've heard a few jokes and a few arguments over the last week about whether Andy Murray is Scottish or British. The old joke is that when he is losing, the English refer to him as Scottish, but when he is winning (like last weekend) he is most definitely British.

If you're not from Britain all the terminology and minor differences can get very confusing. Many other nationalities seem to use the terms ‘English' and ‘British' interchangeably- which is certainly not the case and can get you into a spot of bother.

Indeed, even the New York Times struggled with it this week, announcing Murray's win as one for England rather than Britain, despite the fact Murray is from Scotland:

NY Times Murray

NY Times confuses Murray's nationality

So, being the helpful site that we are, we've put together a simple guide to the basics of it all.

What is Britain?

Britain, short for Great Britain, is officially the collective name for England, Scotland and Wales. Each is its own country but also part of Britain. Therefore, someone from Scotland, for example, is both Scottish and British.

This is the reason that you cannot use ‘English' and ‘British' to mean the same thing. Someone from Scotland or Wales would get pretty annoyed if you called them English, quite simply because they are not. It is like assuming Canada is part of the USA or New Zealand is part of Australia.

Is the ‘United Kingdom' the same?

Often Britain and the UK are used to mean pretty much the same thing. However, technically, whilst Britain is the name for just the mainland countries, the UK includes Northern Ireland and a number of smaller islands as well.

So, when someone refers to the UK, that means England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and lots of little islands like the Isle of Wight and the Isle of Man. We've even created a helpful little image below.

UK Flags

However, this may not be the case for much longer, as Scotland is holding a referendum in 2014 on the issue of independence from the UK. The Scottish people will be allowed to vote on whether to split from the UK and become a truly independent nation. If it is passed then Scotland will politically no longer be considered part of the UK. For now though, to save complicating things even further, you don't need to remember that unless it's passed by a majority in September next year.

How about Ireland?

Unfortunately, when Ireland is considered things get even more complicated. The island of Ireland (if you get what we mean) is split into two- Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland (often just called Ireland). Whilst Northern Ireland is part of the UK, the Republic of Ireland is completely separate. It is a completely independent country, with its own laws and even a different currency to the UK (Euros instead of GB pounds). The map below shows which section of Ireland is part of the UK, and whhich is independent.

Ireland Map

How Ireland is split

To make things that bit more confusing, when people refer to the ‘British Isles' that means both mainland Britain (England, Scotland & Wales) AND the entirety of Ireland. It is more of a geographical term rather than political one, and so encompasses all the islands in the area.

Sports Teams

Chances are, you are most likely to hear about the different countries splitting or coming together in terms of sports teams. In different sports and different competitions, the countries are split or joined differently.

Let's start with the national sport of football. This is probably the easiest explanation, as all five of England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland play as totally separate teams. Indeed, there is a fierce desire to keep it this way, even to the extent that when a Team GB team was put together for the first time for the London 2012 Olympics, Scotland and Wales threatened to refuse.

Whilst, we're on the subject of the Olympics, the teams are split in the same way that the nations are politically. There is Team GB which has the official name of ‘Great Britain and Northern Ireland' and includes England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and there is a separate Team Ireland.

In rugby union, England, Scotland and Wales are all separate, individual teams, but oddly, both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland play together simply as Ireland. However, during the ‘Lions' tours (like the recent one of Australia) all four teams play together, creating virtually the only sporting team that includes all the nations of the UK and all of Ireland.

With the Ashes on at the moment, you may think it is pretty simple deciphering the teams- England vs Australia. However, unhelpfully, in cricket, the England team actually includes players from both England and Wales. Nothing is ever simple is it?

So hopefully, now you know all the differences between England and Britain, and the UK and Ireland (unlike the New York Times).

Share with friends