Great Britain is the largest island of the British Isles. It lies to the northwest of Continenta Europe with Ireland to the west and makes up the larger part of the territory of the United Kingdom. It is the largest island in Europe, and eight largest in the world. It is surrounded by over 100 smaller islands and islets.
Great Britain was formed around 9000 years ago at the end of the Pleistocene ice age when sea levels rose due to isostatic crust depression and melting glaciers. When this happened, the island was cut off from the European mainland.
Great Britain was first inhabited by people who crossed over the land bridge from the European mainland. Its Iron Age inhabitants are known as the Brythons, a group speaking a Celtic language, and most of it (not the northernmost part) was conquered to become the Ancient Roman province of Britannia. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Brythons of the south and east of the island became assimilated by Germanic tribes and became known as the English people. Beyond Hadrian's wall, Gaels from Ireland settled in the west, while Germanic Angles united with Picts and Brythons: these were the forerunners of the Scottish people.
To speakers of Germanic languages, the unassimilated Brythons were called Welsh, a term that came eventually to be applied exclusively to the inhabitants of what is now Wales, but which survives also in names like Wallace. In subsequent centuries Vikings settled in several parts of the island, and The Norman Conquest introduced a French ruling élite who also became assimilated.
Since the union of 1707, the entire island has been one political unit, firstly as the Kingdom of Great Britain, later as part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and then as the present United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Since the formation of this unified state, the adjective British has come to refer to things associated with the United Kingdom generally such as citizenship, and not just the island of Great Britain.
As recently as 9,000 years ago, Great Britain was not an island at all. The end of the last ice age saw the southeastern part of Great Britain still connected by a strip of low marshes to the European mainland in what is now northeastern France. In Cheddar Gorge near Bristol, the remains of animals native to mainland Europe such as antelopes, brown bears, and wild horses have been found alongside a human skeleton, Cheddar Man, dated to about 7150 B.C. Thus, animals and humans must have moved between mainland Europe and Great Britain via a crossing.
Albion (Alouion in Ptolemy) is the most ancient name of Great Britain. It is sometimes used now to refer to England specifically. Occasionally, it refers to Scotland, which is called Alba in Gaelic, Albain in Irish, and Yr Alban in Welsh. Pliny the Elder in his Natural History (iv.xvi.102) applies it unequivocally to Great Britain. The name Britain may be derived from the Brythonic 'Prydyn' (Goidelic: Cruithne), a name used to describe some northern inhabitants of the island by Britons or pre-Roman Celts in the south. "It was itself named Albion, while all the islands about which we shall soon briefly speak were called the Britanniae." The name Albion was taken by medieval writers from Pliny and Ptolemy. For etymology, see below.
The term was used officially for the first time during the reign of King James VI of Scotland, I of England. Though England and Scotland each remained legally in existence as separate countries with their own parliaments, on 20 October 1604 King James proclaimed himself as 'King of Great Brittaine, France and Ireland', a title that continued to be used by many of his successors. In 1707, an Act of Union joined both parliaments.
That Act used two different terms to describe the new all island nation, a 'United Kingdom' and the 'Kingdom of Great Britain'. However, the former term is regarded by many as having been a description of the union rather than its name at that stage. Most reference books therefore describe the all-island kingdom that existed between 1707 and 1800 as the Kingdom of Great Britain".
In 1801, under a new Act of Union, this kingdom merged with the Kingdom of Ireland, over which the monarch of Great Britain had ruled. The new kingdom was from then onwards unambiguously called the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. In 1922, 26 of Ireland's 32 counties were given independence to form a separate Irish Free State. The remaining truncated kingdom has therefore since then been known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
Use of the term Great Britain
"Great Britain" is often used to mean the "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland" (UK). However, Great Britain is only the largest island within the United Kingdom, which includes numerous surrounding smaller islands, as well as Northern Ireland in the island of Ireland.
Terms associated with Great Britain – such as Britain or British – are generally used as short forms for the United Kingdom or its citizens respectively.
Great Britain and its abbreviations GB and GBR are used in some international codes as a synonym for the United Kingdom, largely due to potential confusion with "UA" or "UKR" for Ukraine. Examples include: Universal Postal Union, the International Olympic Committee, international sports teams, NATO, the International Organization for Standardization, and other organisations. (See also country codes, international licence plate codes, and technical standards such as the ISO 3166 geocodes GB and GBR.)
On the Internet, .uk is used as a country code top-level domain. A .gb top-level domain was also used to a limited extent in the past, but this is now effectively in abeyance because the domain name registrar will not take new registrations.
The name Britain is derived from the name Britannia, used by the Romans from circa 55 BCE and increasingly used to describe the island which had formerly been known as insula Albionum, the "island of the Albions". The name Britannia derived from the travel writings of the ancient Greek Pytheas around 320 BC, which described various islands in the North Atlantic as far North as Thule (probably Iceland) .
Although Pytheas' own writings do not survive, later Greek writers described the islands as the αι Βρεττανιαι or the Brittanic Isles. The peoples of these islands of Prettanike were called the Πρεττανοι, Priteni or Pretani. These names derived from a Celtic name which is likely to have reached Pytheas from the Gauls, who may have used it as their term for the inhabitants of the islands. Priteni is the source of the Welsh language term Prydain, Britain, which has the same source as the Goidelic term Cruithne used to refer to the early Brythonic speaking inhabitants of Ireland and the north of Scotland. The latter were later called Picts or Caledonians by the Romans.
During Roman times, the term Britannia was applied to the Roman province of Britain, which occupied most of the island of Great Britain, and to the island as a whole.
(See British Isles (terminology) for further discussion of etymology).
Great Britain may well be a translation of the French term Grande Bretagne, which is used in France to distinguish Britain from Brittany (in French: Bretagne), which had been settled in late Roman times by Romano-Celtic troops from Maximus' army and later by refugees from Roman Britain, who were then under attack by the Anglo-Saxons. Since the English court and aristocracy was largely French-speaking for about two centuries after the Norman Conquest of 1066, the French term may have naturally passed into English usage.
The term "Bretayne the grete" was used by chroniclers as early as 1338, but it was not used officially until James I proclaimed himself "King of Great Britain" on 20 October 1604 to avoid the more cumbersome title "King of England and Scotland". Sources such as the New Oxford American Dictionary (NOAD) define Great Britain as "England, Wales, and Scotland considered as a unit" and Britain as "an island that consists of England, Wales, and Scotland." Thus, Britain is the name of the island, while Great Britain is the name of the geopolitical unit. NOAD advises that while Britain "is broadly synonymous with Great Britain ... the longer form is usual for the political unit."
In Geoffrey of Monmouth's pseudohistorical Historia Regum Britanniae (circa 1136), the island of Great Britain was referred to as Britannia major ("Greater Britain"), to distinguish it from Britannia minor ("Lesser Britain"), the continental region which approximates to modern Brittany.
In Irish, Wales is referred to as An Bhreatain Bheag which means, literally, Little Britain, although a truer translation would be Britain Minor. On the other hand, the closely-related language, Scottish Gaelic, uses the term, A'Bhreatainn Bheag, to refer to Brittany.
Little Britain is also the name of a BBC radio and television sketch show, and the name of streets in the City of London and in Dorchester. The street in London was named in honour of the former embassy of the Duchy of Brittany, which was located there.