Saturday, 20 December 2014

Today's Lesson - Brits

Good Morning class! You know the term, you use it. What does it mean?

Weeeeell, that depends.

First of all, is it OK to call people Brits - that is to say - do they mind? Some of us (ME!) don't like it. I don't even use it, other than jocularly. Some like it, use it, don't see the problem. Matter of taste, etc.

Admittedly "British person" is a bit long-winded, and that's your only alternative. Because Briton means something else. Britons were a tribe......... Oh dear, here we go.........

Here's a map. Study it for a few moments, and be prepared to scroll back up often.

These are the British Isles. It's a totally geographic thing. If Germany had invaded and successfully acquired them in 1944, they would still be the British Isles, or, to be precise, die Britischen Inseln. Anyway, they've had many names, but the first examples we see written on maps was Pretani and Bretani. What did that mean precisely? Well, pretty much any islands off the north-west coast of mainland Europe, so it included far more than it does today. 

What does it include today? Depends who you ask. Oh dear, this was never going to be a straightforward article, but here it gets really complicated.

See the green bit? Some people who live there don't think it's included. Some do. Outside that part, most do, but not all. I repeat, this still is a geographical matter NOT a political one. For the sake of argument, we will assume that the majority of people on the planet consider everything in the above map to be the British Isles, plus a few other small islands. 

The Romans definitely distinguished between the biggest island and the smaller one to the west, but this is where the big difference between geography and politics first cropped up really. On these islands were a lot of tribes, who saw themselves as quite distinct and individual to one another. The Romans didn't care about any of that. They just used the names of the biggest/most important (?) tribes to name the various bits of the land, so they called (roughly) the red and yellow bits Britannia. They called the khaki bit Caledonia, and the island to the west (the pink and green bits) Hibernia or Scotia. I see a few hands raised, but don't worry, we'll come back to that.

What was the distinction then, on the big island, between Caledonia and Britannia? Those who live north of Hadrian's wall like to tell all sorts of tales about that, how inhabitants were too fierce and scary and the Romans didn't want to go any farther north. Or there's the theory about the terrain and climate being not to Roman tastes. There are all sorts of ideas and myths and competing theories. Which is a whopping great big clue for nobody really knows. That's just how it is. Or as they say, you have to draw the line somewhere. 

What is known is that all these small tribes had allegiances, possibly along ethnic grounds. The northern people, the Picts, were possibly quite distinct to the southern people (Celts and Britons). There is a suggestion that they were shorter and darker and really quite physically different to their neighbours. But they were not "lesser" than the other tribes around them in any way. Oh no, never believe THAT. Were they the original "Pixies"? Possibly. But I digress.

Whatever the reason, them up there, and them down there were divided. And the Romans built a wall between them because it suited them. And they've been divided ever since. Funny how these things "stick". I blame the Romans for a LOT.

So to recap, Britannia was the Roman name for the larger, southern province they created on the big island.

We can't keep calling it the big island, what's its real name?

This may surprise you, but it's official name is Great Britain. Does that mean the second biggest island is Little Britain? Well, it was once. No, really! They were Megale Britannia and Mikra Britannia. They had other names too. At one point Great Britain was known as Albion. And it goes without saying that at times the whole island has been known as Britannia, which really pisses off those in the far north, but what can you do. 

So what about the other one? Well, Hibernia or Scotia, was a very well-run place with a High King, and a fledgling democracy, and it soon began to think of itself as a nation. But what did it call itself? As far as we know, the term Eire or something similar was used by its inhabitants quite early, and possibly long before the Romans gave it other names. So, the island is called Eire (in Irish) or Ireland (in English) and variations on that (e.g. Erin) are all OK. Just DON'T call it Little Britain. DON'T.

Now then. Politics. Due to politics the names of the countries contained within these islands are different to the names of the islands. Got that? 

Ireland has been divided into two parts since 1920 and we are not getting into the wrongness of that, or how much longer it will continue, just that right now, there are two countries on the island of Ireland, 1) Eire or the Republic of Ireland, in the south (where the currency is the Euro), and 2) Northern Ireland (also known sometimes as Ulster, because it includes most of the area known historically as Ulster ), in the north (where the currency is the pound sterling).

Now then. Northern Ireland is part of the nation called officially:

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

See what they did there? They used geography to make a very BIG name for a very small (sizewise) nation. (This includes, as I said, Northern Ireland, Scotland, England, and Wales (the yellow bit). I won't dwell on the history of these because this is getting quite long enough. Just memorize the map.)

So, most people just call it the UK because otherwise it's a bloody mouthful. They call it lots of other things too ("Septic Isle" - Bob Geldof), and one of the things you hear is Britain, right? But what does THAT mean?

Well, it pretty much means whatever the speaker intends it to mean, because it's not an official term for ANYTHING. It isn't correct geographically or politically, it's a casual term. So you could argue until you are blue in the face as to what it includes or doesn't include. Right?

I'll tell you what it doesn't mean, shall I? It is NOT a synonym for England. It really isn't. Whatever Britain is, it's not the same thing as England. Yes, you've heard it used that way, many, many times. Maybe you've done it yourself. Maybe you didn't know any better. Maybe you don't give a shit and will continue to use it that way. Maybe your intentions were good and you were trying to be inclusive (for pity's sake never refer to the other bits as England or there'll be blood). 

That's the map, those are the borders, and now you know.

Ah, but that doesn't cover the word Brit, you say. Where does a Brit come from? Wherever he says he comes from. Play it safe and ask, don't assume. Never, never, never use the term "English" to refer to anyone from the parts that are not England (see blood, above). OK, many people would just pat you playfully on the head and correct you, but if it were a bunch of Scottish football fans it could get ugly. Don't do it, just in case.

So what do you refer to people from these islands as, if you don't know which bit they come from? 

Bless your dear little American hearts, they all sound the same to you, don't they? It baffles us. To us, Scottish accents, Irish accents, Welsh accents, and English accents are all very distinct and obvious. But having an English accent myself, and from right down in the south-east too, where it could NEVER be mistaken for anything else (except Australian, apparently), I have often had my "British" accent commented on. What the hell does that mean? 

There is no such critter as a British accent. There are a group of accents as different as chalk and cheese within the British Isles. Yes, we know what you mean, but it's still funny. 

If you refer to someone with one of those accents as British, you may get away with it (just an eyeroll, you know). Can you at least tell an Irish accent apart? Is it obvious? Then say Irish. Please. Same with Scottish (NOT Scotch, thats a drink. Scots is OK, but never Scotch. Got it?). If you can't tell the difference between Scottish and Irish, well, to be fair, they are the same people. But don't mention that either.

See, what happened was that the Picts were either:

1. Driven to the far north.
2. Driven OUT.
3. All killed.
4. Assimilated.

Possibly all 4 (YES).

Who by? The Scots. They came from Ireland. Don't ask. But it's true. Billy Connolly says "The Scots were originally an Irish tribe. A mentally ill Irish tribe. One day one of them said, come on lads, I know an even rainier place..." and they went to Scotland. Oh, it's a fun history, look it up.

So, Celtic lands. But there's more. You may have noticed we've neglected the Welsh up until now. I've been told by North Americans that they know very little about the Welsh, and they do get overlooked. Well, most of them are down mines, so you can't see them. And they're all mad anyway. So, having offended everyone in Wales, let me just explain that it's generally assumed the Welsh are in fact the last of the pure English. That is to say, when the various waves of invaders over the centries made the English the mutts they are now, there were those who fled into Wales and that's the last of the Celts gone from England. 

It's disputed, like all of this. Some say the Cornish are Celts. Some say they are actually the lost Picts. But it's funny how the Welsh often aren't thought of as Celts. Anyway, call them Welsh, call them British, call them anything you like really. There are a few uppity ones, but generally they have a good sense of humour, and are used to being the forgotten minority. Which is just as well.

For uppity you really need the English, and this is where I come in.

When I was young it was common to hear people (in England) referring to anything in the British Isles as English. Oh yes. That's about as politically incorrect as it gets, but that's the old attitude. In fact they'd only just got over losing India. I was taught, as a child, that my nationality was English. People, believe me, there is no such thing. English is a language, and an identity, yes, but it's not a nationality. I wrote it on my entry card into France once and had a French immigration officer rip me a new one. 

The correct nationality for citizens of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is British. Therefore, British people come from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. OK?

But if you ask me what I am, I'll tell you I'm English. Identity has NEVER followed geographical or political lines, and I doubt it ever will. 

If you call me British, I won't mind, but if you call me a Brit, I will bite you.


  1. A most entertaining (and colorful!) historic account you have here. With the acronym UK being OK (especially in the USA), it's a wonder "y'all" ain't called "UKs." Wait...that day may well arrive. LOL Enjoy your holiday weekend ~ Blessings! :)

  2. Thanks for taking the trouble to sort all that out in a semi-serious and witty way. Happy Holidays!