What's the Difference Between the U.K., Great Britain, and England?

What's the Difference Between the U.K., Great Britain, and England?

(We'll tell you in your private Google search, since you're too embarrassed to ask out loud.)

By Karen Gardiner
Digital Original
Meghan Markle Has to Follow All of These Intimidating New Etiquette Rules

So, you're making your plans for the biggest day of the year: That's May 19, of course, the date of the upcoming wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. As well as navigating your flight options across the pond and trying to find a nearby hotel room, there's another factor to take into consideration before you touch down in Heathrow: Are you sure you have your titles and geography — aka the difference between the UK, England, and Great Britain — straight?

If you consistently refer to Prince Harry's grandmother as the "Queen of England," the answer to that question is a resounding no. Sure, she is English and is England's monarch but calling her the Queen of England is like calling the President of the United States "the President of New York." Here's why.

There is no Queen of England because England is not a sovereign state and has not been for more than 300 years.

There hasn't been a Queen of England since 1707 when the Kingdoms of England and Scotland united to form a sovereign state called Great Britain. Anne, Queen of England then became Queen of Great Britain and upon the union of Great Britain and Ireland in 1801, George III then became the King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. In 1922 much of Ireland seceded from the union and so the name of the state became the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The nation's current monarch is, then, correctly referred to as Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Or, if you want to use her full, unwieldy, title, take a deep breath and say: "Elizabeth II, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of her other realms and territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith." Phew! A simple "Elizabeth II" also works.

Many people use the word "England" to refer to the sovereign state of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (which can be helpfully abbreviated to "the U.K.") That's a mistake and it understandably rankles with people from the three countries within the union that are not called England. The U.K. is made up of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, which are all individual countries with their own distinct identities. The U.K Parliament in London has supreme power over all four countries (as well as Crown dependencies and overseas territories) but each has some degree of autonomy — the Scottish Parliament, for example, has devolved power over such issues as health and education.

So what's Britain? Well, most, but not all, of the U.K. occupies the island called Great Britain. That island is part of the British Isles, a geographical term referring to a group of more than six thousand islands, which include Ireland — but Ireland is emphatically not a part of Britain or the U.K. Northern Ireland is not a part of Britain either, but it is a part of the U.K. Which means that, if you are using "Britain" and "the U.K." interchangeably, you're probably getting that wrong too. 

Here's a (maybe) helpful diagram to explain it, which also takes into account the Crown dependencies of Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man:

Confusing? OK, yes, and there is a degree of ambiguity involved as we refer to people as "British" not "United Kingdomian." Best practice? If you know someone is from the U.K., but not sure which part, you can call them British. Just don't assume they are English.

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