Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Jane Austen could have called Sir Walter Scott English

My husband, who is Scottish by heritage, but born and raised in England, often faces the perplexing question from his Canadian countrymen, "so, are  you Scottish or are you British?" (that is to say, when people don't mistake him for Australian). Now, you must forgive us Colonials. There are a lot of names for the Old Country - Britain, Great Britain, England, the British Isles, the United Kingdom/UK.

So, I think the reasoning of Canadians and our ilk, is that England refers to the culture, and Britain is the name of the modern state. A parallel is Persia vs. Iran. Persian refers to the people, the culture, the history, etc. Iran is the name of the modern state. This is a good parallel, assuming, perhaps falsely, that Canadians know anything about Persia.

For the benefit of the confused, here is my brief explanation. England is a country within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Great Britain is the island that contains England, Scotland and Wales. The British Isles is a term used to refer to Great Britain and Lesser Britain, which is what the island of Ireland used to be called, and which includes Northern Ireland (the small part at the top of the island that is part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (the rest of the island, which is not part of the UK).

As an aside, I have, in former times, referred to this southern part of Ireland as Southern Ireland. Apparently, this is not technically correct, as this is what it used to be called by the colonial English powers. In my defence, I have heard it called this on the BBC. Now that I have been corrected, however, I will cease to use that nomenclature.

In summary, if someone is from the UK, they are British. You can be more specific and ask them if they are English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish. It is quite simple, really, as long as you remember that  Irish may be British or not, depending on which part of the island the person is from. Northern Irish is British. Republic of Ireland Irish is not.

What you might not know is that it used to be quite normal and acceptable to refer to the whole of Great Britain as England. They were interchangeable. (At least to foreigners and to English people. I'm not sure whether the Scots ever referred to themselves as English.)

According to Simon Schama in his excellent series "The History of Britain" the division between Scotland and England was primarily a Roman invention. He points out that a famous speech about Scotland attributed to a Roman commander was actually written centuries later by Shakespeare, or something.

Britain is even a Roman word. England is a much later, Germanic word. I was taught in a university course on the history of English that the word derives from the word for angel because the people were so fair and blond. I have a suspicion this is not the case. The cherubic imagery of blond baby angels surely post-dates the Anglo-Saxon invasions... right?

Well, that's all I've got. Feel free to share this post with your colonial friends for their general edification and enjoyment. I hope it is useful in sparing you the trouble of explaining it all yourself every time you are asked if you are from the country of Great Britain.

Melanie Kerr is the author of Follies Past: a Prequel to Pride and Prejudice

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  1. Having lived in Australia since 1951 I am still regarded and think of myself as English, not British. (We have a saying here; "Once a Pom alwys a Pom" which is why I've retained my English (I refuse to call it British)Passport. I have never called a Scot, a Welshman or Irishman, British.

    To me we are four seperate countries but united under the one flag the "Union" of 1801.

    Your husband like me is an Englishman (a Pom in Australia) and comes from the "Old Dart" I take great pride in being English just as a Jock or a Paddy a DaiJones take great pride in declaring that they are what they are and not British.

    We all pretty much speak the same language, English but I must confess to having difficulty at times understanding the language as uttered by the others :)

    And if you don't believe me watch out for the Commonwealth Games soon to start in Glasgow.

    Just loved your post and thought I'd better add my tuppence worth ;)

  2. Thanks for the comment! My husband did grow up in England, but his family is all Scottish. I, myself, spent a good chunk of my childhood in New Zealand, so am familiar with the "Pom" terminology. I remember being told that there was a sign at the lion safari park (not sure where in Australia that is) that, after listing admission prices, states "Poms on bikes - Free"?