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Britain (placename)

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Britain (placename)

For other uses, see Britain (disambiguation).

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The term "Britain" is a linguistic descendant (reflex) of one of the oldest known names for the island currently referred to as Great Britain. The terms Briton, British and British Isles, similarly derived, refer to its inhabitants and the smaller islands in the vicinity. Britain is the only ancient name for these islands to survive in general usage. Its first written appearance was by Pytheas of Massalia in the 4th century BCE. It originates with a group of P-Celtic speakers, resident on the island, who referred to themselves by the earliest known form of the term British.

Pre-Roman period

Written record

The first known written use of the word was an ancient Greek transliteration of the original P-Celtic term. It is believed to have appeared within a periplus by the geographer and explorer Pytheas of Massalia, but no copies of this work survive. The earliest existing records of the word are quotations of the periplus by later authors, such as those within Strabo's Geographica, Pliny's Natural History and Diodorus of Sicily's history.[1] According to Strabo, Pytheas referred Britain as Bretannikē, which is treated a feminine noun.[2][3][4][5] Although technically an adjective (the Britannic or British) it may have been a case of noun ellipsis, a common mechanism in ancient Greek. This term along with other relevant ones, subsequently appeared inter alia in the following works:

  • Pliny referred to the main island as Britannia, with Britanniae describing the island group.[6][7]
  • Catullus also used the plural Britanniae in his Carmina.[8][9]
  • Avienus used insula Albionum in his Ora Maritima.[10]
  • Orosius used the plural Britanniae to refer to the islands and Britanni to refer to the people thereof.[11]
  • Diodorus referred to Great Britain as Prettanikē nēsos and its inhabitants as Prettanoi.[12][13]
  • Ptolemy, in his Almagest, used Brettania and Brettanikai nēsoi to refer to the island group and the terms megale Brettania (Great Britain) and mikra Brettania (little Britain) to describe Great Britain and Ireland, respectively.[14] However, in his Geography, he referred to both Alwion (Great Britain) and Iwernia (Ireland) as a nēsos Bretanikē, or British island.[15]
  • Marcian of Heraclea, in his Periplus maris exteri, described the island group as αἱ Πρεττανικαὶ νῆσοι (the Prettanic Isles).[16]
  • Stephanus of Byzantium used the term Ἀλβίων (Albion) to refer to the island, and Ἀλβιώνιοι (Albionioi) to refer to its people.[17]
  • Pseudo-Aristotle used nēsoi Brettanikai, Albion and Ierne to refer to the island group, Great Britain, and Ireland, respectively.[18]
  • Procopius used the terms Brittia and Brettania though he considered them to be different islands, the former being located between the latter and Thule. Moreover according to him on Brittia lived three different nations, the homonymous Brittones (Britons), the Angiloi (English) and the Phrissones (Frisians).[19][20]

As seen above, the original spelling of the term is disputed. Ancient manuscripts alternated between the use of the P- and the B-, and many linguists believe Pytheas's original manuscript used P- (Prettania) rather than B-. Although B- is more common in these manuscripts, many modern authors quote the Greek or Latin with a P- and attribute the B- to changes by the Romans in the time of Julius Caesar;[21] the relevant, attested sometimes later, change of the spelling of the word(s) in Greek, as is also sometimes done in modern Greek, from being written with a double tau to being written with a double nu, is likewise also explained by Roman influence, from the aforementioned change in the spelling in Latin.[22] For example, linguist Karl Schmidt states that the "name of the island was originally transmitted as Πρεττανία (with Π instead of Β) ... as is confirmed by its etymology".[23]

The initial B or P of Pytheas's name suggests that it is derived from a Brythonic word such as Pritani or Priteni, which referred to the people of Great Britain.[24][25][26][27] It is therefore thought to be most closely related to the Welsh Ynys Prydein (the island of Britain).[28][29]

Roman period

Following the Roman conquest of 43 BC, Brittannia and Brittānia were used to refer to the Roman province of Britain, which consisted of island of Great Britain south of Hadrian's wall. As a result, Britannia was increasingly used to refer to the island of Great Britain in particular, which had formerly been known as Albion.[30]

Anglo-Saxon and Danish period

In Old English or Anglo-Saxon, the Graeco-Latin term referring to Britain entered in the form of Bryttania, as attested by Alfred the Great's translation of Orosius' Seven Books of History Against the Pagans.[31]

Norman French period

The Latin name Britannia re-entered the language through the Old French Bretaigne. The use of Britons for the inhabitants of Great Britain is derived from the Old French bretun, the term for the people and language of Brittany, itself derived from Latin and Greek, e.g. the Βρίττωνες of Procopius.[19] It was introduced into Middle English as brutons in the late 13th century.[32]

Modern usages

The term Britain is widely used as a common name for the United Kingdom. Great Britain, the name of the largest island within the United Kingdom is also used politically to refer to England, Scotland and Wales in combination, however, it is sometimes used as a loose synonym for the state as a whole. For example, the term Team GB and Great Britain were used to refer to the United Kingdom's Olympic team in 2012 and this usage created controversy as it appeared to exclude Northern Ireland.[33]

See also



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