This is more of a geographical than lexical post, but relates to a mistake that is made by writers, journalists, politicians and myriad others on a daily basis: ‘UK’, ‘Britain’ and ‘the British Isles’ are not interchangeable.
In the wake of ‘Brexit’, the most infamous new word in the English language, the occurrence of these errors has hit new heights. Quite simply, it is not ‘Britain’ that is leaving the EU; it is the UK. These brief definitions should clear up why.
geographical – the single island on which the mainlands of England, Wales and Scotland are located. It is usually considered acceptable for ‘Britain’ to be used interchangeably with ‘Great Britain’ (below).
political – the political entity comprising England, Wales and Scotland, and all of their territories and dependencies.
political – shortening of the official title: United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Crucially, this definition makes clear that Northern Ireland is included in the UK, but not in Great Britain.
geographical – the islands of Britain (England, Wales and Scotland), Ireland (Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland), and more than six thousand surrounding islands which are all territories or dependencies of either the UK or Republic of Ireland.
From these definitions, it is clear that even the word ‘Brexit’ is etymologically wrong. ‘Britain’ is not leaving the European Union; this is an impossible concept, as it is simply a geographical region that is part of the larger region of Europe. Even ‘Great Britain’, while a political term, is not the entity leaving the European Union, as this would exclude Northern Ireland.
The only one of these definitions it is possible to use in regard to Brexit is the United Kingdom. This refers correctly to the political entity that includes England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Admittedly, though, it’s harder to think up a memorable amalgamation – ‘Ukexit’, anyone?
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