Explaining Britain to the Swiss

February 1, 2013, 6 Comments

England in the paperBeing British in Switzerland isn’t always easy. Being English is much simpler. That’s because for many Swiss the adjectives are interchangeable, as indeed are the countries. England is shorthand for the whole country, never mind that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland might object strongly to that. But I lost count of the number of customers in the shop (and friends) who talked of going on holiday to England but were actually going to Inverness or Edinburgh or Snowdonia.

Admittedly it can be confusing. The newspaper cutting above shows just how much our complicated country name can lead to the oddest headlines. This one was from the Liechtenstein daily paper but could easily have come from a Swiss one. It says that a double taxation agreement has come into force with ‘England and Northern Ireland’, so presumably the Welsh and Scots are excluded. Of course England here means Great Britain and is presumably used to save space. But then Northern Ireland is rather randomly attached to the end. Saying ‘Grossbritannien’ would have been shorter and simpler.

The problem is that Britain has a complicated official name: the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. A bit of a mouthful, and one which has no adjective to go with it. I have a British passport, as do people from Northern Ireland, even though British could technically apply to just Great Britain. Funnily enough, in the body of the text the article the country gets its full name in German: Vereinigten Königreich von Grossbritannien und Nordirland. No wonder England is used as shorthand.

It’s even more confusing as there is only one name for the common language: English. The term ‘British’ before it is usually there purely to distinguish it from American English; Welsh is an entirely separate language, as is Gaelic, rather than anything to do with English. No-one speaks Welsh English; they speak Welsh and English (with a Welsh accent).

So to clarify things for any Swiss people reading this (and maybe even some British), here is a breakdown of the different names, starting with the geographic:

British Isles. A collective term for all the islands together. So it includes the two main islands (Great Britain and Ireland) and the likes of the Isle of Wight, Skye, Isle of Man, Anglesey, etc.

Great Britain. The largest island of the British Isles, Not a political entity but often used as shorthand for the whole country as it’s the biggest part. Politically, it is divided between England, Scotland and Wales.

Ireland. The name of the island, which is divided between the Republic of Ireland (or Eire) and Northern Ireland. The former is an independent state, the latter is part of the UK (though not everyone agrees with that division).

And then the political:

United Kingdom. This is the actual country, though its official name is longer (as above) but rarely used by anyone living there. More often than not it’s just the UK, although you never see it as VK in German.

England: Tea, pubs and fish & chips. A nation but not a state. It has a flag but no parliament, a Bank that issues the currency but no official national anthem, a capital city that is also the capital of the UK.

Scotland: Kilts, haggis and Nessie. It was independent for centuries, now it has its own devolved parliament and government, even though the UK is not a federal state like Switzerland. Independence may yet come again.

Wales: Leeks, rain and sheep. A principality with a prince (Charles) but this is no Liechtenstein. The prince is merely a title and the Assembly has limited powers. Statistics often have ‘England & Wales’ lumped in together.

Northern Ireland: Catholic, Protestant, Belfast. The six counties of Ireland that decided against independence in 1921 and became of province of the UK. Sadly still a source of conflict.

And when you think you have mastered it, along comes the sporting dilemma. The four nations of the United Kingdom have separate teams in sports like football and rugby but compete together in the Olympic Games as Team GB. Not Team UK.

And I thought Switzerland was complicated with its four languages and official Latin name. At least they all refer to the same geographic entity, even if many people don’t realise why CH is the country’s abbreviation.

Next time a journalist asks me if I am British or English, I think I might just say ‘both’ and let them sort it out.

6 Comments on "Explaining Britain to the Swiss"

  1. Ociore Friday February 1st, 2013 at 11:02 PM · Reply

    First of all… hi Diccon. 🙂
    We recently met at the Author@Google Event (the spanish girl with the name ending in “o” and that for that reason was always taken for a man in Switzerland)… 😛
    Regarding your last post… XDD. Believe me when I say that Swiss are not the only ones confused :P.
    You wouldn’t believe how many in my familiy told me the last news of Belfast, while I was living in Dublin, just because for them Ireland and Northern Ireland was exactly the same… (luckily for me, they never came to visit me, otherwise we would have had a diplomatic incident, I’m sure… XD)
    I think that my husband has given you this video via twitter ( Next time you could try forwarding the journalists there 😉
    Have a nice weekend!

    • Diccon Bewes Monday February 4th, 2013 at 11:42 AM · Reply

      Of course I remember you both!
      And I have seen the video before. It’s good but unfortunately confuses the issue by saying that England, Wales, etc are ‘countries’, which technically they are not. They are nations but not countries as they are not independent (or even members of the UN!).

  2. Conor Friday February 1st, 2013 at 11:41 PM · Reply

    To further complicate things, a fair few Irish object to being lumped in with the “British Isles”: it may be the internationally recognised term, but is not recognised by the Irish Government.

  3. Christoph Burgdorfer Sunday February 3rd, 2013 at 01:35 AM · Reply

    einer Fehlt um die Verwirrung perfekt zu machen: Brittany … nordwesten Frankreichs aka ‘Bretagne’

  4. Stella Wednesday February 6th, 2013 at 02:47 AM · Reply

    How do Canada and Australia range in?

  5. Mariann Wednesday February 6th, 2013 at 09:25 PM · Reply

    Northern Ireland – not all six counties voted against independence, but to make a substantial size, six counties were selected.

    And to complicate the sports issue further, in rugby there is no Northern Ireland team, there is only an Irish team. The same in golf, which will make it difficult in 2016 for players like Rory McIlroy, who is Northern Irish but currently plays for Ireland.

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