No Thank You, We’re British (Maybe)

In this post I have a pop quiz for you. It consists of four simple true or false statements. Can you get all four of them right?

(Oh, Elaine, really? A pop quiz?

Yes, a pop quiz. Just roll with it 🙂 )

True or False:

  1. Jane Austen was born in Great Britain.
  2. Jane Austen lived and died in England.
  3. Jane Austen spent her life in the British Isles.
  4. Jane Austen lived and died in the United Kingdom.


Did you answer yes to all four questions? If so, then you got one wrong. (Sorry!) Read on to find out which question is correctly answered no!

The terms England, United Kingdom, and Great Britain are confusing to those who hear them used interchangeably.  Here’s a hint to help you sort them out:

Never use them interchangeably.

You see, these are four very different terms. Let’s start by discussing the British Isles.

Everything in green in the picture above is part of the British isles. The term refers mostly to the two really big islands known as Ireland and Great Britain, but it also includes thousands of smaller islands around these two large ones. It’s like saying the Florida Keys or the Bahamas. So yes,  Jane Austen spent her life in the British Isles. To be more specific, Jane spent her life on Great Britain, which is an island and not a country.

This is Great Britain. It’s the largest of the British Isles, and it has three separate countries on it: Scotland, Wales, and  England. That’s all it is: a big island containing three separate countries. The three countries have their own parliaments and make their own laws, but they function as one country in many ways. For instance, if you are a citizen of Scotland or Wales you have the same passport as a citizen of England.  The three countries speak the same language,  use the same currency, and owe allegiance to the same Queen.

That makes sense, you say. The three countries are all on the same island, so they’re basically all the same country, right?

Well, no. Northern Ireland gets in on this too.

The island of Ireland (look back at the first picture above) also has separate countries on it. To be specific, it has Northern Ireland on the northern end of the island and the Republic of Ireland on the remainder, in the southern part. (I guess calling it Southern Ireland would have been too obvious.) Northern Ireland is actually a part of the United Kingdom, along with Scotland, Wales, and England. It is completely separate from the Republic of Ireland, even though they share an island.

So if you say Great Britain you are talking about an island, but if you say United Kingdom you are talking about a country, a country made up of four separate countries. And Jane Austen lived in England, which means she also lived in Great Britain. Got it?

But our favorite author did not live and die in the United Kingdom, at least not the United Kingdom as it is today. Wales, Scotland and England joined to form the United Kingdom in 1801, although Wales was already part of the Kingdom of Great Britain before then. (Say what???)  Austen was born in 1775, so she was born in the Kingdom of Great Britain, not in the United Kingdom.

And by the way, the term Britain, if you really want to be technical, only includes England and Wales.

Since the four countries of the U.K. are independent countries, not states, the citizens of England, Scotland and Wales do not usually refer to themselves as British, but as English, Scottish or Welsh. (The citizens of Northern Ireland are still thinking about it.) Also, any one of these four countries could vote to withdraw from the United Kingdom at any time, assuming the English parliament would allow it. In fact Scotland came very close to doing exactly that just two years ago.

All these terms are confusing to outsiders, but they mean something to people from the British Isles, so it’s good to keep them straight. Don’t book a trip to Ireland and gush about seeing the “English” countryside. Just don’t.  And don’t bring your buddy Ian from Scotland to a family gathering and introduce him as your “British” friend. You might as well call your cousin Bobbie Joe from Savannah one of them #@&! Yankees. And we know how that will end!

If you’re still confused over all these terms, here’s an excellent video that explains all these terms much better than I can.

One final thought: if you think this is confusing now, just wait! The United Kingdom is leaving the European Union by the end of this year, which means that all the trade and travel agreements between the U.K. and Europe will have to be renegotiated. But Scotland and Northern Ireland have both discussed the possibility of joining the European Union on their own . . . . which means that they would probably have to leave the U.K. It is very possible that in two years, the map of the United Kingdom, above, will look very different than it does today. We may have to go over all of this again!

17 Responses to No Thank You, We’re British (Maybe)

  1. She was born in the Kingdom of Great Britain but after 1st January 1801, she “lived and died”, to quote your question, in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. So the correct answer to all four of your questions is Yes. The Kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland were united in 1801 and stayed that way until 1922 when the Irish Free State was established.

    If you had asked if she was born, lived and died in the UK? or if she had lived all her life in the UK? then the answer would have been No.

  2. Love the nit-picking about these terms because I am never sure which one to use. Thanks Elaine!

  3. Thank you for this info. I was talking to someone about this and have no clue. I thought they were interchangeable.

  4. Well… that was interesting. I love the intricate tidbits that you gather and share with us. What a lesson. I remember that vote when Scotland chose to not become independent. Braveheart probably rolled over in his grave. Oh well, the people have chosen. Since I was a child… the global map has changed so many times… I hardly know the name of countries now. What geography I learned… no longer exists. I have to think what was… and translate it to what is… and sometimes… it changed more than once. Whew! Thanks for sharing.

    • I imagine poor William Wallace rolled in his grave quite a few times when Scotland agreed to join England back in 1707! What fun history we Janeites learn, don’t you think?

  5. Neat post! I’m still a bit confused but I think I figured it out!lol Lots of Geography involved in U K and Britain !

  6. Thank you for sharing this information as it was helpful in clearing up a misconception I had as I was thinking that United Kingdom referred to England, Scotland, Wales and all of Ireland, not just Northern Ireland.

Comments are precious!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.