A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Why does the UK call itself "Great" Britain? What's so great about it?

May 19, 1995

Dear Cecil:

Where did the word "Great" come from in the official title "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland"? When and why did Britain start calling itself great? Since the British Empire has disintegrated, shouldn't they change it to plain old Britain?

Cecil replies:

Well, I guess it's less of a mouthful than Formerly Great Britain or Still Pretty Good Britain, which are the other obvious choices. But the fact is, things will really have to go to pieces before the Brits will be obliged to drop the "Great" from their country's name. Originally the island was called Britain, period, but the name dropped out of common use after the masses coalesced into the separate kingdoms of England and Scotland and the principality of Wales. It was revived as part of efforts to unify the island in the 16th century. The "Great" had to be appended to distinguish the proposed kingdom from Brittany, AKA Britannia minor, lesser Britain, the French peninsula that had been settled in the fifth and sixth centuries by Celtic immigrants from the British Isles. And Great Britain definitely had a classy ring to it, although I can't imagine the residents of Brittany were too happy. ("So, mes ami, if you are Great Britain, what are we? Pissant Britain?") Suffice it to say the name stuck. James I, who was also James VI of Scotland, unified the thrones of England and Scotland and had himself proclaimed king of Great Britain in 1604. The term became official with the Act of Union in 1707.

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