Mind your language

When Scotland goes, will England return?

What shall we call the remainder of Britain? There’s one obvious answer

22 February 2014

9:00 AM

22 February 2014

9:00 AM

Who, my husband asked, expects every man will do his duty? He was responding to the interesting and important question that Charles Moore raised last week about the name of the country if Scotland leaves. My husband, naturally, is all for calling it England. Even the Oxford English Dictionary defines England as ‘The inhabitants of England (sometimes also Britain) regarded collectively.’

The Welsh would certainly be aggrieved, and the Northern Irish up in arms. But we can’t include everyone in the national name. Even now, some of the Cornish are cutting up rough. As someone wrote in the Church Times not so long ago: ‘Our villages — Ingleby, Irby, Saxton, Scotforth, Swaffham, Walmer and Wigston Magna — are named after the Angles, Irish, Saxons, Scots, Swabians, Welsh and Vikings who once lived in them.’ What the Swabians were doing in Swaffham I can’t imagine, yet it seems to be true.

There is something in what my husband says. Continuing the Nelsonian theme, ‘England, home and beauty’ is not improved as ‘Britain, home and beauty’. When Queen Victoria visited Paris in 1855, the first English monarch to do so since Henry VI, a triumphal arch welcomed her in Latin as the ‘Queen of England’. The English press habitually referred to her by the same title.

It was James VI of Scotland who had started the trouble by being proclaimed ‘King of Great Britain, France, and Ireland’. By narrow logic, Great Britain should have been preserved as a geographical term. By contrast, Little Britain, before the comedians purloined it, specified Brittany, which had sometimes been called Britain, just as Britain had been called Brittany. In Latin, in addition to Britannia, there had been a spelling Brittannia, with double consonants, from which the French name Bretagne was derived. (This Latin form explains the inscription on coins as late as 1953 of Britt omn regina ‘Queen of all the Britains’.)

The Act of Union, 1707, still referred to the ‘two Kingdoms of England and Scotland’. After 1707, Acts of Parliament often spoke of North Britain and South Britain. So perhaps the rump should be called by the pleasingly symmetrical name of South Britain and Northern Ireland.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments