“Where do I live Mum,” shouted my oldest son down the stairs, “Is it England the UK or Great Britain?” After a moment’s hesitation I told him to write England. That had to be right but I have to admit to a moment’s confusion. Why can’t it be a straightforward question like it is for, say French mothers. We’re French, we live in France. Obvious.
But it is confusing. Great Britain is really a geographical term for the island that comprises England, Scotland and Wales (as well as the smaller islands off the coast including the Isle of Wight, Anglesey, the Isles of Scilly and the Hebrides) but many believe Great Britain and the United Kingdom are words that are interchangeable. But is there any wonder? When we travel abroad our car sticker reads ‘GB.’ At the London Olympics, although we had athletes from Northern Ireland, the team was called ‘Team GB.’ You can’t but think we just like the use of the adjective ‘Great’ as if it somehow makes us superior. Our team should have been called ‘Team UK’ to be an accurate reflection of all of the competing athletes.
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is the official full title of the state and this is the way it appears on official documents such as passports. It is hardly a convenient way of saying where you from hence the many (and incorrect) abbreviations. Some also use the term British Isles without full understanding. The dictionary definition is that it refers to the whole of Ireland and Great Britain and the surrounding islands but is often used as if identical to the UK. The term British Isles is often considered irritating and offensive, especially to the Irish on the grounds that the modern association of the term British with the United Kingdom makes its application to Ireland inappropriate. The policy of the government of the Republic of Ireland is that no branch of government should use the term.
Even more offensive I think is the way that ‘England’ is often used colloquially to mean Great Britain or even the United Kingdom as a whole. Perhaps this ignorance has arisen because the capital of the UK is in England and the Queen resides in England. For a long time it was common for supporters of the England football team to wave the British Union flag at matches-the use of the specifically English St George cross flag only gained popularity at the European championships in 1996. Andy Murray the Scottish tennis player has remarked that if he loses he is Scottish but if he wins he is British. Lovers of sport are very fickle.
The same confusion exists outside the UK; in Germany the term ‘England’ is synonymous with Great Britain or even the UK. In many other languages the word ‘English’ is synonymous with British. It may seem irrelevant and inconsequential that there is so much obfuscation about our nation but it is surely terribly divisive; the countries which make up the UK seem to be pitched against each other. United? Far from it I would say.