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This article deals with the history of the word Britain. For clarification of terminology and an overview of articles about Britain and Ireland see British Isles (terminology).

The word Britain is used to refer to

The word British generally means belonging to or associated with Britain in one of the first two senses above (i.e. the United Kingdom or the island of Great Britain). However, the term has a range of related usages (see British).

Etymologically, these words are closely related to Brittany, the name of the western French peninsula, and its adjective Breton.


Earliest attested references


The etymology of the name Britain is thought to derive from a Celtic word, Pritani, "painted", a reference to the inhabitants of the islands' use of body-paint and tattoos. If this is true, there is an interesting parallel with the name Pict, connected with a Latin word of the same meaning. The modern Welsh name for Britain is Prydain.

It has also been postulated that Britain may derive from the Celtic goddess Brigid.

In 325 BC the Greek explorer Pytheas of Massalia visited a group of islands which he called Pretaniké, the principal ones being Albionon (Albion) and Ierne (Erin). The records of this visit date from much more recent times, so there is room for these details to be disputed, but it does seem to attest pre-Roman use of the name by Celtic-speaking inhabitants of the islands.

The Roman geographer Ptolemy called the larger island Megale Brettania (Great Britain), and the smaller island Micra Bretannia (Little Britain). Hence, originally, the term Great Britain referred to the largest island in the British Isles, just as the largest of the Canary Islands is still called Gran Canaria, and the largest of the Comoros is Grande Comore.

Britain and Brittany

The original reference seems to have been to the territory in which the Brythonic languages were spoken, which more or less coincided with the Roman province of Britannia, an area equivalent to modern England, Wales and southern Scotland. In the Early Middle Ages speakers of a Brythonic language which later evolved into Breton migrated from Cornwall to Armorica, Western France, possibly because of pressure from Saxon invasions. This is why different forms of the same name apply to insular Britain and continental Brittany. In French the similarity is even more obvious: Bretagne and Grande Bretagne.

Geoffrey of Monmouth used the names Britannia minor to refer to the Armorican region and Britannia major for the island. The element great in the term Great Britain thus simply means large, to make the distinction from Brittany.

Semantic evolution of the term Britain

The kingdoms established on the island of Great Britain were perceived to be dominant over the whole archipelago, which thus came to be known as the British Isles. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England, the queen's astrologer and alchemist, John Dee, wrote mystical volumes predicting a British Empire and using the terms Great Britain and Britannia. After Elizabeth's death in 1603 the kingdoms shared one King, James VI of Scotland and I of England. On 20 October 1604 he proclaimed himself "King of Great Brittaine" (thus including Wales and also avoiding the cumbersome title "King of England and Scotland"). This title was eventually adopted formally in 1707 when the Kingdom of Great Britain was formed. The adjective used for the kingdom was British.

Since its formation, the kingdom was enlarged in 1801 by the addition of the island of Ireland - already ruled by the British monarchy - to become the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and was then reduced in 1922 by the independence of the Irish Free State, now the Republic of Ireland. The name of the kingdom changed accordingly, in 1927 becoming The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. To some writers the meaning of British and Britain have changed with the Kingdom. The words British citizen is now used to indicate United Kingdom (UK) nationality because there is no suitable substitute. However, to other writers Britain is still synonymous with only the island of Great Britain.

Other terms also cause confusion. Great Britain is undisputedly the name of the large island, but is often used to refer to the country, notably in the modern Olympic Games. As abbreviations, both UK and GB are often used for the United Kingdom, while GB is only rarely restricted to Great Britain. The British Isles is still a geographical term for the archipelago, but it can also still be seen as implying dominance by Great Britain, so it is sometimes avoided.

Brutus of Troy

In keeping with the mediaeval penchant for etymologising country names in terms of eponomous heroes, English historians of the late mediaeval and early modern periods charted the history of the nation from Brutus of Troy, supposedly a hero of the Trojan war who founded Britain just as Aeneaus' descendant Romulus founded Rome, Frankus France, and so forth. The life of Brutus, anglicised as Brute, was recorded in the literary tradition of the Prose Brute. This was long accepted as the etymology of Britain.

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