I’ve been away for a few days, and found myself unexpectedly without reliable WiFi. I was in Brittany which, if you’ve never been, is a really beautiful part of France with great landscape, food, and drink. As a travel destination it’s great, but it’s also linguistically very interesting.
You may have noticed the similarity between Brittany and Britain, and there’s no coincidence that two places are so close, geographically and in terms of their names. Because of this similarity, it might be easier to refer to Britain as Great Britain from here on out. Some people don’t like that name, taking it as an arrogant assumption of Great Britain’s greatness in contrast to everyone else. But that’s not the origin of the name at all.
The name Britain is derived from Briton, the name for the people who inhabited modern day England, Wales, and southern Scotland. Though now the term Briton is used as a general term for any inhabitant of Great Britain, until fairly recently it was used to refer to the inhabitants of modern-day Great Britain before the Roman and Anglo-Saxon invasions. In particular, the name was often associated with the Welsh, who were often considered as the inheritors of the legacy of the pre-Anglo-Saxon Britons (the Scottish were probably considered to be too much of a mix of Britons, Vikings, Picts, and Irish).
With the Anglo-Saxon invasion, many of these Britons were pushed to the peripheries: across the Irish Sea to Ireland, north to Scotland, west to Wales, south west to Cornwall, and… south, across the English Channel, to Northwest France. The area where they settled became known as Brittany, and to make a distinction between this land of refugees and their homeland, Britain came to be known as the equivalent of Great or Greater Britain, with Brittany sometimes known as Lesser Britain. We don’t need to make such distinctions anymore in English, as there’s a small but noticeable difference between Britain and Brittany. In modern French though, it’s necessary to specify that you’re referring to Britain by saying Grand Bretagne, because the French name for Brittany is Bretagne.
The legacy of their Celtic origin is still evident today. Not only does the area feel like it has a relatively distinct culture from the rest of France, it has its own Celtic language: Breton. It’s not spoken much, but you’ll see Breizh (Brittany) written everywhere. And if you visit you have to try a kouign-amann, a delicious and ridiculously buttery pastry, which comes from the Breton words for cake (kouign) and butter (amann).
So now we know why Britain is known as Great Britain. But, you might be asking, why not say Big Britain instead of Great Britain? Wouldn’t that make more sense? And why not just the United Kingdom, and remove any confusion between Britain and Brittany in the first place? There are interesting answers to those questions, which you’ll find out about tomorrow!