Posted on March 7th, 2018
by Rab Bruce’s Spider
Britain is a concept which seems to get a lot of people riled up these days. The word means different things to different people, with everyone insisting their interpretation is correct. In fact, it seems the term has had a number of meanings from almost its earliest known times.
The word itself comes from a long time ago, when a Greek explorer named Pytheas reached the northern coast of what is now France at some time in the 4th Century BCE. He looked across the channel and saw the white cliffs of an island, so he asked the locals which people lived there. They told him that he was looking at the lands of the Pritani (or Pretani, Pritanni, Pretanni).
Pytheas voyaged to the British Isles, then went onwards to Scandinavia, but the name he had heard from the locals and which he recorded, clearly stuck.
The Romans converted the name into Britannia, which was the name they gave to their province. Confusingly, while the Romans sometimes divided the island into Britannia to the south and Caledonia to the north, this generally happened after the construction of Hadrian’s Wall. Even then, they also used the term Britannia to describe the whole of what we now term great Britain, i.e. the main landmass which includes present-day England, Wales and Scotland. This may have been because the Romans viewed the entire land as being theirs by right, or simply because it was a convenient name for a faraway place which offered little of value and required an excessive number of troops to keep under control.
Confusion over the use of the term continues to this day. What do people mean when they say “Britain"? It really depends on what they think it means. Recently, I’ve seen claims that Britain means Wales and England, while Great Britain includes Scotland. That seems to hark back to the official Roman division but, as mentioned above, it wasn’t a hard and fast rule even among the Romans. It’s also worth pointing out that, in the 10th Century, Irish annals use the word “Britain" when they are referring only to Wales, because that was where the Britons lived. The English were not viewed as Britons so, from the Irish perspective, could not be said to be living in Britain. Here we see evidence that names used to indicate territory controlled by a certain tribe or national group rather than being a strictly geographic term which applied to land no matter who lived on it, which is the sense most people use today.
For most of the Middle Ages, Britain was generally used as a geographical term to describe the islands, with England and Scotland regarded, correctly, as distinct nations.
Of course, it was the Union of the crowns in1603 which required a new term to describe the subjects of James VI & I, so Britain was resurrected, apparently much to the disgust of the English nobles who felt English first and British very much second. How things have changed.
So we return to the less than elegant situation where being British means different things to different people, and Britain can be either a geographic location or a political entity. It could be argued that saying, “I’m British" could be viewed as being similar to “I’m European", in that it simply describes where you are from or which culture you identify with. Or it could be that you are stating your self-identification with a political entity. The terms Britain, great Britain, United Kingdom (and, as so many Scots, Welsh and Irish people are fond of pointing out) England as virtual synonyms has simply added to the confusion. Some argue that this is a deliberate policy on the part of the ruling elite who wish everyone under British rule to conform to some idealised version of a Briton. Yet, when you ask what it is that makes people British, the explanations they come up with are very often general traits such as “Fair play" or “a sense of justice", which, in reality, cannot be ascribed to natives of Great Britain alone. Travel anywhere in the world and you will find people who practise what are often claimed to be British values, just as you can find many British citizens who display some very unpleasant behaviour patterns which do not conform to those same British Values.
So Britain and being British can mean a lot of things. Languages, words and phrases shift meaning over time, and some words have more than one meaning. Britain is certainly one of those multi-meaning words and has been for a very long time. However, the highly-charged political and constitutional situation in the UK may be having a considerable effect on its meaning because, whatever the pedants among us may wish, it is increasingly being used in a political sense. Britain is coming to mean the UK, specifically the system of Westminster Government, and being British increasingly means that you identify with that system. Linguistically speaking, this transition is fascinating to watch. Who knows what being British will mean to the next generation who inhabit the British Isles?