What’s in a Name?

The Way It Is

Have you ever wondered why these islands are called British?British Isles 1877 Sometimes, in this age of extreme political correctness, they are referred to as ‘the Western Isles’, or simply ‘the Isles’. People think that they are called ‘British’ because one of the islands was home to a people who were very, very good at conquering almost everywhere. They also had a flag. Oddly enough these conquerors weren’t ‘British’ in a certain sense, but were in another. History, terminology and politics confuse the issue terrifically. As it stands the ‘British Isles’ are occupied by two sovereign nations, the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The latter contains four countries; three which make up ‘Great Britain’, England, Scotland, and Wales, and Northern Ireland. Great Britain only appeared in 1707 when the kingdoms of England and Scotland were united for the first time in a situation which may seem odd to modern eyes; Queen Anne passed a law that said so. Even more oddly, they had been united somewhat half-officially before that since 1603 when King James IV of Scotland inherited the crowns of England and Ireland (and, in theory, France) from Elizabeth I, making him a triple monarch. None of these peoples called themselves ‘British’, they were English, Scots, Welsh and Irish. ‘Great Britain’ was a political fabrication called after a very ancient name. As you can see, the whole situation is rather confusing. So, let’s go back to the beginning, like Vizzini said to do…

Blame it on the Greeks

A very long time ago, before the Romans became so obsessed with building things that they had to invade places in which to build more things, the Greeks were sailing around the Mediterranean looking for places to settle in and trade with. Eventually one Greek explorer made his way out of the great sea and sailed up the Atlantic coast of Spain towards places no Greek had ever heard of. He eventually arrived at two big islands, and on these islands he met people. Clearly being the curious sort, he asked the first people he met “what are you called?” Except he would have said it in Greek. When he got back to Greece he told his mates that he had met the Celtic-speaking “Pretanike” on one island and the “Irene” on the other. What these names mean is up for debate. In any event, when the Romans went and borrowed everything worth knowing from the Greeks they also took their maps and such other things that would be useful when one sets about conquering everywhere. Not being very good at speaking or reading Greek the names of these two islands became “Britannia” and “Hibernia” in Latin. When it came time to conquer and build things in this part of the world the Romans decided to call the whole place “the British Isles”. Sadly the Romans were very bad at naming things, they spent too much time building roads through them and killing everyone before someone thought to ask where exactly it was that they were and who they were killing. They didn’t bother conquering the whole of the islands however. They said it was because they were tired of building roads and aqueducts everywhere, and you can’t grow decent wine north of Bordeaux, but it was really because of bees. They heard the Irish distrained bees and knew that they must have had a highly developed society. Or that they were all as mad as badgers and not worth the trouble. Either way, Ireland and Scotland were left alone and the Romans hid behind a wall. They named the Roman province ‘Britannia’, made up of ‘Cambria’ (Wales) and ‘Albion’ (England). The bits they left were Scotland, calling it ‘Caledonia’ and ‘Scotia’, and Ireland, calling it ‘Hibernia’ and ‘Scotia’. Notice that they called Ireland and Scotland the same name, but more on that later. But most importantly, it was the Greeks after meeting a Celtic tribe, followed promptly be the over-achieving Romans, who first called these isles ‘British’, not king, nor queen, nor act of parliament.

‘I am not the Dread Pirate Roberts, my name is Ryan’

“But what,” you may cry, “did they call themselves?” It is very hard to know. Cultural identity is a very complex issue which I will now thoroughly abuse.

Ireland

The Irish, called Hibernians or Scots by the Romans, called themselves ‘the Gaels’ which may have meant something like ‘wild-persons’ or ‘raiders’. They may not have know what that meant, but when you go somewhere and everyone runs away screaming “oh crap, it’s the Gaels” you might start to think “we must be the Gaels they keep yelling about.” They also called themselves the ‘Féni’, which means ‘us, ourselves’. The Irish called all of Britain ‘Alba’, and they called the Romans a lot of unpleasant words. These names refer to the people, not the places, which is why after the Anglo-Saxons started conquering Britain ‘Alba’ became the name of the part they didn’t conquer, Scotland.

Scotland

The people who lived in Caledonia were called the Picts, but then a bunch of Irish folk (who were called Scots by the Romans, remember?) decided that they wanted to live somewhere wetter, colder and more miserable, moving in to where the Picts were. The Irish-Scots either killed or married the Picts and eventually made a new kingdom, Scotland. Except they called it Alba.

Wales

‘Wales’ comes form the Germanic (Anglo-Saxon) word for ‘foreign’, that is to say, ‘not us’. The Welsh called their own land ‘Cymru’ which means something like ‘us’. So the names of Wales are ‘us’ and ‘not us’. The people who lived in Britain before the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons were the Britons, the only surviving element of whom were the Welsh. So, the Welsh are Britons because they were from Britain, and the Anglo-Saxons are Brit-ish because they moved into Britain.

England

This part of the island was first full of Celts called Britons, who were conquered by the Romans, becoming the Romano-British. Then the Anglo-Saxons came and killed everyone. The Angles made a deal about names with the Saxons; all the kingdoms would be named after the Saxons but the whole place would be called after the Angles. Which is why we have places like Wessex, Sussex, Essex and Middlesex after West, South, East and Middle Saxons (very imaginative), which are all part of England. Then the Normans came. The Normans are very good at two things; conquering and ruling. They took the whole place over from top to bottom, which no-one else had never managed, but never named it after themselves. The Normans were led by a man who was “a French bastard landing with an armed banditti, and established himself as king of England against the consent of the natives.” (- Thomas Paine) The Normans ruled over the various people of Britain, the Anlgo-Saxons and Welsh, and later the Irish and Scots, while being very French for a long time. Eventually they gave up being French and pretended to be Irish, English or Welsh.

So, to surmise, there were basically three people on the two islands first, the Picts, Gaels and Britons. A bunch of Gaels made the Picts disappear, took their land and became Scots. The Britons were driven to Wales, thus becoming Welsh, by the Anglo-Saxons who became English. And they were all conquered by the Normans. Except the Scots, they just inherited everything. James IV of Scotland became James I of England and called this union of the Scottish and Anglo-Normans ‘British’. Which is what it was called to begin with. Then these newly renamed-with-the-old-name-that-they-already-had ‘British’ went and conquered for themselves the biggest empire ever.

A Note on the Naming of Places

You might be saying to yourself “how on earth could they have all made such a mess of name these places and peoples, surely they could’ve asked someone.” Well, they did, but that doesn’t always work. When explorers first landed in what is now called Canada they found a village and asked the natives their “What is this place called?” The natives looked around to what the foreigners were pointing at and replied “kanada.” The Europeans went home all very proud of themselves and drew maps of ‘Canada’. One day someone thought to ask a native what ‘kanada’ meant. He replied, now that they had known each other for some time and learned the lingo, that ‘kanada’ was their word for village. The name of the second biggest country in the world is Village. Canadians are thus the Village People.

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2 responses to “What’s in a Name?

  1. Hello, found my way here via tagsurfer at wordpress and very much enjoyed this piece! You know your stuff and express it in a very readable way, thankyou.

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