Britain is the word that is generally used to refer to the island of Great Britain. Great Britain is an immense island situated off the coast of northern Europe and is a constituent island of the British Isles. The island is made up of the three countries of the United Kingdom, namely Scotland, England, and Wales. This causes a lot of confusion as many people use Britain, Great Britain, England, and the UK as interchangeable terms when in fact they all mean different things. Great Britain is among the largest islands in the world, covering an area of 80,823 square miles which makes it Europe’s largest island and the largest of the British Isles. Britain is not a country; it is the island (Great Britain) on which the country of the United Kingdom is primarily situated.
The island is highly populated and is the third-most populous island in the world. Great Britain’s population of over 61 million inhabitants is only exceeded by Japan’s Honshu Island and Indonesia’s Java Island. The largest city in Great Britain is London as it covers an area of 670 square miles, and it is also the island’s most populous city, having a population of over 9.7 million inhabitants. London has the seat of the UK government and is, therefore, the capital city of the UK. However, since Britain is not an actual country, it does not have a capital city. Manchester and Birmingham are the second and third most populous cities in the island respectively. Other major cities found on Great Britain include Cardiff and Edinburgh, which are the capital cities of Wales and Scotland respectively.
The island was initially referred to by ancient Greek explorers as Albion, a word derived from the Latin word ‘albus’ which translates to "white." The island was later known as "Great Britain" (megale Brettania) to distinguish it from the neighboring smaller island of Ireland which was known as "Little Britain" (mikra Brettania). The term had a widespread use by the 17th century, with King James VI in 1604 declaring himself as “King of Great Brittaine.” The kingdom of Great Britain was formally established under the provisions of the Acts of Union of 1707 which resulted in the merging of the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Scotland. However, the kingdom would later be renamed as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland after the Kingdom of Ireland also joined the union in 1801. However, in 1922 a large part of Ireland seceded from the Union, and Northern Ireland remained part of the Union. The Union since then is known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The term is still used, albeit loosely, to refer to the United Kingdom particularly during international sporting events. The team representing the United Kingdom during the Olympic Games is commonly known as Team Great Britain (Team GB). The term is also used in international codes to refer to the UK including NATO and the Universal Postal Union.
About the Author
Benjamin Elisha Sawe holds a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and Statistics and an MBA in Strategic Management. He is a frequent World Atlas contributor.
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