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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 were referred to, and perhaps referred to themselves, by the earliest known form of the term British.
"Britain" comes from Latin Britannia~Brittania, via Old French Bretaigne and Middle English Breteyne, possibly influenced by Old English Bryten(lond), probably also from Latin. The earliest known written references to the British Isles derive from the works of the Greek explorer Pytheas of Massalia; later Greek writers such as Diodorus of Sicily and Strabo who quote Pytheas use variants such as Prettanikē, "The Britannic [land, island]", and nesoi Brettaniai, "Britannic islands".
The modern Welsh name for the island is (Ynys) Prydain. This demonstrates that the original Common Brittonic form had initial P- not B- (which would give **Brydain) and -t- not -tt- (else **Prythain). This is best explained as containing a stem *pritu- (Welsh pryd, Old Irish crúith; < Proto-Celtic *kwritu-), meaning "shape, form", combined with an adjectival suffix. This leaves us with *Pritania.
It has been speculated that the name of the island probably derives from the demonym of its inhabitants, which would be *Pritanī, singular *Pritanos, modelled on Latin Britannus, -i. It is further popularly supposed that this demonym may refer to some practise of body art or tattooing. Such a practise however is only dubiously attested and in any case not until at least the time of Caesar, two hundred and fifty years after Pytheas first documents the name. The interpretation therefore remains uncertain.
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. According to Strabo, Pytheas referred Britain as Bretannikē, which is treated a feminine noun. 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.
- Catullus also used the plural Britanniae in his Carmina.
- Avienus used insula Albionum in his Ora Maritima.
- Orosius used the plural Britanniae to refer to the islands and Britanni to refer to the people thereof.
- Diodorus referred to Great Britain as Prettanikē nēsos and its inhabitants as Prettanoi.
- 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. However, in his Geography, he referred to both Alwion (Great Britain) and Iwernia (Ireland) as a nēsos Bretanikē, or British island.
- Marcian of Heraclea, in his Periplus maris exteri, described the island group as αἱ Πρεττανικαὶ νῆσοι (the Prettanic Isles).
- Stephanus of Byzantium used the term Ἀλβίων (Albion) to refer to the island, and Ἀλβιώνιοι (Albionioi) to refer to its people.
- Pseudo-Aristotle used nēsoi Brettanikai, Albion and Ierne to refer to the island group, Great Britain, and Ireland, respectively.
- 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).
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; 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. 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".
Following Julius Caesar's expeditions to the island in 55 and 54 BCE, Brit(t)an(n)ia was predominantly used to refer to just the island of Great Britain. After the Roman conquest under Claudius in 43 CE, it came to be used to refer to the Roman province of Britain, which by would eventually consist of island of Great Britain south of Hadrian's wall.
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.
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. It was introduced into Middle English as brutons in the late 13th century.
There is much conflation of the terms United Kingdom, Great Britain, Britain, and England. In many ways accepted usage allows some of these to overlap, but some common usages, especially by foreigners to Britain, are incorrect.
The term Britain is widely used as a common name for the sovereign state of the United Kingdom, or UK for short. The United Kingdom includes three countries on the largest island, which can be called the island of Britain or Great Britain: these are England, Scotland and Wales. However the United Kingdom also includes Northern Ireland on the neighbouring island of Ireland, the remainder of which is not part of the United Kingdom. England is not synonymous with Britain, Great Britain, or United Kingdom.
The term Great Britain originally served to distinguish the island of Brittany from the French region of Brittany (in French Grande Bretagne and Bretagne respectively). With the Acts of Union 1707 it became the official name of the new country created by the union of the Kingdom of England (which then included Wales and Ireland) with the Kingdom of Scotland, forming the Kingdom of Great Britain. In 1801, the name of the country was changed to United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, recognising that Ireland was considered a separate kingdom within the union. After Irish independence in the early 20th century, the name was changed to United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which is still the official name to this day. In contemporary usage therefore, Great Britain is synonymous with the island of Britain, and can also be used to refer politically to England, Scotland and Wales in combination. However, it is sometimes still used as a loose synonym for the United Kingdom 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 some interpreted it as excluding Northern Ireland. The demonym for a citizen of the United Kingdom is British.
- Chadwick 1949, pp. 66-80
- Maier 1997, p. 230
- Ó Cróinín 2005, p. 213
- Dunbavin 1998, p. 3
- Oman, Charles (1910), "Volume I: England Before the Norman Conquest", in Oman, Charles William Chadwick, A History of England, New York; London: GP Putnam's Sons; Methuen & Co, pp. 15–16, "The corresponding form used by the Brythonic 'P Celts' would be Priten .... Since therefore he visited the Pretanic and not the Kuertanic Isle, he must have heard its name, when he visited its southern shores, from Brythonic and not from Goidelic inhabitants."
- Snyder, Christopher A. (2003). The Britons. Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 0-631-22260-X.
- Book I.4.2–4, Book II.3.5, Book III.2.11 and 4.4, Book IV.2.1, Book IV.4.1, Book IV.5.5, Book VII.3.1
- Βρεττανική. Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert; A Greek–English Lexicon at the Perseus Project
- Strabo's Geography Book I. Chapter IV. Section 2 Greek text and English translation at the Perseus Project.
- Strabo's Geography Book IV. Chapter II. Section 1 Greek text and English translation at the Perseus Project.
- Strabo's Geography Book IV. Chapter IV. Section 1 Greek text and English translation at the Perseus Project.
- Pliny the Elder's Naturalis Historia Book IV. Chapter XLI Latin text and English translation at the Perseus Project.
- Charlton T. Lewis, Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary, lemma Britanni II.A at the Perseus Project.
- Gaius Valerius Catullus' Carmina Poem 29, verse 20, Latin text and English translation at the Perseus Project. See also Latin text and its English translation side by side at Wikisource.
- Gaius Valerius Catullus' Carmina Poem 45, verse 22, Latin text and English translation at the Perseus Project. See also Latin text and its English translation side by side at Wikisource.
- Avienus' Ora Maritima, verses 111-112, i.e. eamque late gens Hiernorum colit; propinqua rursus insula Albionum patet.
- Orosius, Paulus (1857). "Book VII, chapter XL". In Havercampus, Sigebertus. Historiarum Adversum Paganos Libri Septem. Thorunium: Ernestus Lambeccius. pp. 319–320. Available online at the Internet Archive.
- Diodorus Siculus' Bibliotheca Historica Book V. Chapter XXI. Section 1 Greek text at the Perseus Project.
- Diodorus Siculus' Bibliotheca Historica Book V. Chapter XXI. Section 2 Greek text at the Perseus Project.
- Claudius Ptolemy (1898). "Ἕκθεσις τῶν κατὰ παράλληλον ἰδιωμάτων: κβ',κε'". In Heiberg, J.L. Claudii Ptolemaei Opera quae exstant omnia. vol.1 Syntaxis Mathematica. Leipzig: in aedibus B.G.Teubneri. pp. 112–113.
- Claudius Ptolemy (1843). "index of book II". In Nobbe, Carolus Fridericus Augustus. Claudii Ptolemaei Geographia. vol.1. Leipzig: sumptibus et typis Caroli Tauchnitii. p. 59.
- Marcianus Heracleensis et al; Müller, Karl Otfried (1855). "Periplus Maris Exteri, Liber Prior, Prooemium". In Firmin Didot, Ambrosio. Geographi Graeci Minores 1. Paris. pp. 516–517. Greek text and Latin Translation thereof archived at the Internet Archive.
- Ethnika 69.16, i.e. Stephanus Byzantinus' Ethnika (kat'epitomen), lemma Ἀλβίων Meineke, Augustus, ed. (1849). Stephani Byzantii Ethnicorvm quae svpersvnt 1. Berlin: Impensis G. Reimeri. p. 69.
- Greek "... ἐν τούτῳ γε μὴν νῆσοι μέγιστοι τυγχάνουσιν οὖσαι δύο, Βρεττανικαὶ λεγόμεναι, Ἀλβίων καὶ Ἰέρνη, ...", transliteration "... en toutoi ge men nesoi megistoi tynchanousin ousai dyo, Brettanikai legomenai, Albion kai Ierne, ...", translation "... There are two very large islands in it, called the British Isles, Albion and Ierne; ..."; Aristotle or Pseudo-Aristotle; E. S. Forster (translator), D. J. Furley (translator). "On the Cosmos, 393b12". On Sophistical Refutations. On Coming-to-be and Passing Away. On the Cosmos. William Heinemann LTD, Harvard University Press. pp. 360–361. at the Internet Archive.
- Procopius (1833). "De Bello Gotthico, IV, 20". In Dindorfius, Guilielmus; Niebuhrius, B.G. Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae. Pars II Volumen II (Impensis Ed. Weberis ed.). Bonnae. pp. 559–580.
- Smith, William, ed. (1854). "BRITANNICAE INSULAE or BRITANNIA". Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography, illustrated by numerous engravings on wood. London: Walton and Maberly; John Murray. pp. 559–560. Available online at the Perseus Project.
- Rhys, John (July and October 1891). "Certain National Names of the Aborigines of the British Isles: Sixth Rhind Lecture". The Scottish Review. XVIII: 120–143.
- lemma Βρετανία; Babiniotis, Georgios. Dictionary of Modern Greek. Athens: Lexicology Centre.
- Schmidt 1993, p. 68
- Snyder, Christopher A. (2003). The Britons. Blackwell Publishing. p. 12. ISBN 0-631-22260-X.
- Sedgefield, Walter John (1928). An Anglo-Saxon Verse-Book. Manchester University Press. p. 292.
- OED, s.v. "Briton".
- Phillips, Melanie (8 August 2012). "So far as the Olympic Games are concerned, the UK seems to have been abolished". Mail Online. Retrieved 5 May 2013.
- Fife, James (1993), "Introduction", in Ball, Martin J; Fife, James, The Celtic Languages, Routledge Language Family Descriptions, Routledge, pp. 3–25
- Schmidt, Karl Horst (1993), "Insular Celtic: P and Q Celtic", in Ball, Martin J; Fife, James, The Celtic Languages, Routledge Language Family Descriptions, Routledge, pp. 64–99
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