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Great Britain vs United Kingdom vs England: What’s the Difference?


Great Britain, England, the United Kingdom, as well as Ireland, Éire, and Northern Ireland: Learn the difference between GB vs UK, and all the rest!

Updated: 2018-11-04.
Great Britain United Kingdom EnglandAfter the surprising popularity of a post I did last year, stating the differences between Ethnicity vs Race, I have decided to do another in the same vein. I did that previous post because I needed to understand more about what each word meant, so I researched the topic and then wrote a post about it.

Likewise, I feel like clarifying (both to myself and for anyone who is eager to learn) these various words/terms, though I write this as no expert.

The differences between each get more confusing before it gets easier. I assume that when I say the term “country,” you might think I am speaking of a sovereign state. However, a country is simply a separate entity, geographically or otherwise; a country may be completely sovereign, or it may be a constituent of another sovereign state.

For example, Curaçao is a country in the Caribbean; its official name is even the Country of Curaçao. But this Caribbean island-country is really a constituent country of a fully-sovereign nation a world away – the Netherlands. The leader of Curaçao is the monarch of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. So keep this in mind as you continue with this article.


England is a country (constituent country), a part of the Kingdom of Great Britain (hold on, we’ll get there). London is the capital city of England, and England used to be a sovereign nation, the Kingdom of England (which had already annexed Wales), until 1707, when it united with the Kingdom of Scotland to form Great Britain.

Britain / Great Britain

First of all, Britain = Great Britain. Same thing, just one’s shorter, like United States = United States of America. Now that we got this out of the way, what is Great Britain? Well, Great Britain is essentially defined as two things:

  1. Geographically, Great Britain is an island, the largest island in Europe, the third most-populous in the world (over 62 million people), and the ninth largest island in the world. However, perhaps you should forget this version of Great Britain, and instead go with the next definition.
  2. Politically, Great Britain is actually the combination of three countries (remember: constituent countries, not sovereign): England, Scotland, and Wales. This is what “Britain” or “Great Britain” will conjure up to most people, and most would usually append the extra description of “the island” when referring to the geographic version. When used in this political sense, Britain’s full name is the Kingdom of Great Britain.

Sooooo….. Britain is actually made up of three (constituent) countries: England, Scotland, and Wales. However, Britain itself is not sovereign, either; rather, it makes up a large portion of the modern-day United Kingdom, which you can read about next.

United Kingdom

I told you that this whole lesson would get more confusing before it cleared itself up, but we’ve reached the top of the hill, so to speak; it starts to get easier from here. So, the United Kingdom was born when the Kingdom of Great Britain united with Northern Ireland; Hence, its full, official name is really the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. So, the United Kingdom therefore includes the constituent countries of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The United Kingdom is a sovereign nation/state.

Northern Ireland vs Ireland vs Ireland the Island

Above I mentioned that the United Kingdom is the unification of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. However, Northern Ireland is not to be confused with Ireland, a completely sovereign nation; Ireland’s full name is the Republic of Ireland, also called Éire. And, now that you’ve had it easy for all of 30 seconds, let’s go make things messy again. Ireland can refer to two things:

  1. Ireland, politically, as mentioned above, refers to the Republic of Ireland, a completely sovereign nation/state; this is not to be confused with Northern Ireland, a constituent country of the United Kingdom. 
  2. Like with Britain, there is also a geographical definition. Geographically, Ireland is an island to the west of the island of Britain. The island of Ireland hosts two countries: the sovereign/independent Republic of Ireland, as well as the UK’s constituent country of Northern Ireland. The Republic of Ireland takes up about 5/6 of the island, while Northern Ireland makes up the remaining portion.

Also, as with Britain above, when people mention simply Ireland, they are usually referring to the sovereign nation, the Republic of Ireland. For the island, you should say “the island of Ireland,” and “Northern Ireland” for Northern Ireland. The islands of Britain and Ireland, along with a few small outlying islands, make up what’s called the British Isles.

uk british isles map
Map of the UK (+ constituent countries) and the Republic of Ireland. By Wikimedia Commons user TheBritishExplorer.

English vs. British

This one’s not as hard to understand. English refers to things or people of England; for people, it is actually its own ethnic group. British refers to things or people of Great Britain, or sometimes, of the United Kingdom altogether.

Also, English is a language. But there’s British English vs. American English. However, these are both basically the same language, just with regional variations in spelling, pronunciation, and so forth, like Spain’s Spanish compared to the Latin American variety.

Bonus: Which country does Irish refer to?

British Isles UK Venn Diagram
Venn diagram displaying the relationships between the subsidiary nations of the UK and the meaning of the term “British Isles” and how the “Crown dependencies” fit in. Taken by Wikimedia Commons user Wdcf.

We end with an easy one. Anything Irish is from the island of Ireland; therefore, it can refer to things or people of either the Republic of Ireland or from Northern Ireland. Also, Irish can itself refer to an ethnic group; likewise, these usually include the native people of the island of Ireland (both Republic of Ireland and from Northern Ireland).

However, to further distinguish the two nationalities on the island, sometimes people refer to the citizens of Northern Ireland as British (since they’re part of Great Britain) or Northern Irish; the people of the Republic of Ireland are sometimes referred to as Southern Irish.

Did you get it? Hopefully this helped to clear things up, though I have a feeling you might be more confused after reading this 😉

So, what did you think? This is part of our ongoing series, “Versus: ‘What’s the Difference?'” For more like this, check out these articles:

Ethnicity vs Race | Arab vs Persian | Embassy vs Consulate | Hispanic vs Latino | Saint Martin vs Sint Maarten | Oriental vs Asian | Tofu vs Nattō

Christian Eilers
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Christian Eilers
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