Yesterday, I wrote about why Great Britain is so-called, but if the Great is to distinguish it from Brittany, why not use a word more clearly related to size, like Big or Large? Why use Great when so many people assume it’s meaning in the name is to indicate how wonderful Britain is?
The simple answer is, the use of great to mean very good is a fairly recent development (first being recorded in 1848). For much of the history of English, great meant very large. This is therefore what we really mean when we talk about Great Britain: it’s the big home of the Britons, not the small one (Brittany). Nowadays, we’ve got plenty of words like big, large, and huge to refer to size, so great tends to just mean very good.
Still, there are a few cases, like Great Britain, where we can see it used in its original meaning. It’s quite common in the names of animals, like the great tit, or the great white shark, both of which have great in their name as they’re relatively big, for their species. Likewise, the Great Dane. You can see great used in a similar way in geography. The area encompassing a city and its suburbs and satellite town is known as, for example, the Greater London area. In North America you can find the Great Lakes, and on the other side of the planet, the Great Barrier Reef. On your way between the two you might stop at the Great Wall of China for a quick visit.
We also still use great to mean a large amount in many expressions. If we want to emphasise something’s size we can say it was a great big shark, for example. We can have a great deal of sympathy for a great number of people too.
There are many more examples, but what I’m now more interested in is why great has come to mean very good. I think that after a little thought it seems fairly straightforward. There seems to be an inherent link in our minds between quality, or importance, and size. If we’re excited about something, we can say that it’s going to be big. If something’s important it’s a big deal, or it looms large on the horizon. That seems fairly logical to me, as we think both verbally and spatially. Things which are more important to us and which we think about a lot feel like they’re more to the front of our minds, and take up more space than other thoughts.
And we can see a similar shift in meaning with the word grand. Coming from the French grand(e), meaning big, it was used in similar ways in English (e.g. The Grand Canyon, or €/$/£1,000, which was a lot of money when it came to be used in American underworld slang in the 1910’s), though it’s now fairly old-fashioned. And like great it’s come to mean very good too. We still use it in many phrases, such as having a grand old time, having grand ideas or plans, reaching a grand old age, or playing a grand piano. It’s still quite common in Ireland to use grand to mean good, or fine. We might say I’m grand in the same way other English speakers might say I’m great, for example. And when I was younger I always enjoyed how Captain Picard on Star Trek: The Next Generation would declare things to be grand, knowing even then that it was quite archaic.
Finally, a little side note, related to yesterday’s second hypothetical question: why not say the United Kingdom instead of Great Britain? Well, quite simply, they’re two different things, evident in the full name of the UK: the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Great Britain is specifically the name of the island comprised of England, Scotland, and Wales, as well as the smaller islands off its coast belonging to these countries, and the UK is this island plus Northern Ireland. Things do get confusing in this little part of the world though, especially when you start talking about the British Isles, an entirely geographical term which includes both the UK and the independent republic of Ireland, which is not part of the UK. Ah, but that’s a leaky old kettle of fish for another day!