Sunday, 27 October 2013

How should the so-called 'British Isles' be known?

I will reveal exclusively here in this post two names I propose for the islands off the north-west coast of Europe commonly known as the British Isles. You may wonder why I'm suggesting alternative names when we already have a name we're all familiar with. But I feel the British Isles is the wrong name. Great Britain is the right name for the main island and British its appropriate adjective.

The British-Irish Isles

The British Isles is an unpopular name in the Republic of Ireland for the simple reason that the country is part of neither Great Britain nor the United Kingdom. So it is a wholly inappropriate name. An agreement should be found perhaps through the British-Irish Council on what would be a suitable alternative. For now I will just stick to the British-Irish Isles. But here are the two suggestions I'd like to put forward:

Suggestion 1
The Pretannic Isles.

The Pretannic Isles is not a name I have devised myself. It is derived immediately from the ancient Greek name for these isles, Prettanikē nēsos, so named after the main tribe found in this corner of Europe, Prettanoi (Britons) as they were known by the Greek historians. One of these historians Marcian of Heraclea, in his Periplus maris exteri, used αἱ Πρεττανικαί νῆσοι (the Prettanic Isles) to refer to the islands. So the name I have proposed was already used, though in a variant form, many centuries ago. Indeed Pretannic Isles or Pretanic Isles is already one suggestion made by others and used in some academic circles.

One of the likely arguments against the use of the word Pretannic is its relationship with the name Britain and its associated word British. But their relationship is only like that of cousins, Pretannic not being taken from Britain but rather directly from the Greek name for these isles which predates any imperial Anglo-centric concept of Britain. Indeed the ancient Britons are more like the Welsh than the English with the Brythonic languages being Welsh, Breton, Cornish and the now extinct Cumbric which was spoken in North-West England once upon a time. The Irish may also argue that they have little historically to do with the Britons as a tribe. But then the same can easily be argued for most people in eastern England or in northern Scotland. The fact is whether we're descended from the Britons or not, the main tribe historically was the Britons so a variant of the name was used by the Greek historians to create a name for all the isles.

Of course it is difficult to get away from the issue of tribal bias. However, there are alternatives.

Suggestion 2:
The Westernorth

The Westernorth is tribally neutral, literally (and quite obviously) meaning "the Western North" a reference to it's location in Europe so is very much geographical like Nordic. The emphasis is on the first syllable so is like Wester Ross in that respect. Although the conjoining n could be viewed as both the last letter of Western and first letter of North rolled into one when the name is said aloud it very much seems to belong exclusively to the North. Indeed with Wester used a lot in place names throughout Scotland the two elements are easily separated as Wester North.

Personally, I feel there is something very evocative about the Westernorth as a name. It suggests somewhere on the fringes that's wild and windswept but also bold and adventurous, outward looking even. It isn't a name loaded with colonial ambitions but talks simply about a place not dominated by one culture but a variety of cultures that have decided that this part of the world is where they want to call home. Westernorthern, a possible derivative, can therefore be used to talk about 'Westernorthern culture' as a whole range of different cultures sharing a common mild-climate environment without seeming to emphasise one particular country or island.

I feel the Westernorth  is a name to be strongly recommended if not for the reasons I have just given then certainly for the fact that it is not cumbersome.

If neither of these two suggestions are felt to be suitable then it will be a matter of considerable debate as to what is the best alternative. My suggestions are just suggestions until one of them is adopted if that were to happen. There are many other alternatives that have been suggested including:

British Isles and Ireland
United Kingdom (or UK) and (Republic of) Ireland (or ROI)
Islands of the North Atlantic (or IONA)
Northwest European Archipelago
West European Isles

But none of the above quite cut it like the Pretannic Isles or the Westernorth and some of them are a little too cumbersome.

So what do you think? What name sounds best?


  1. @" Great Britain is the right name for the main island"<< No it is not, Great Britain is a political term for the state that is shared between the countries of Scotland and England. Britain is a Geographical term for the land mass that houses two the two countries of Scotland and England [with it's principality of Wales]......... I would support " Westernorth".... Islands of the North Atlantic (or IONA) would clash with the Scottish Isle of Iona.

  2. The British Isles is the only possible name to describe the archipelago on which we all live. They will still be the British Isles after any member of the United Kingdom becomes independent. It is a geographical term, not a political one. Linguistically there is no difference between Pretannic and British because both share exactly the same root. I fear that this debate stems from a misunderstanding of words, their meaning and what they designate.

  3. Great Britain (or a slight variant of it) came into existence as a name long before 1707 or even 1600 and Britain is simply interchangeable with that name. If I want to talk about the British state I will call it the UK. But thanks for endorsing "Westernorth", Dances with Haggis :)

  4. This entire and sadly completely unnecessary 'debate', derives from the complete inability of so many people, to distinguish PHYSICAL GEOGRAPHY, from Political Nation Statehood!!

    In 1922, when The Irish Free State was founded, she ceased being a part of the "United Kingdom".....She did NOT however, cease being part of the "British Isles Archipelago", which no Political Act could ever bring about!

    Ireland can no more remove herself from the British Isles, than Canada can remove herself from North America; but that doesn't mean Canadians, (or Mexicans), are Americans, as 'Nationality', is a POLITICAL construct, rather than a fact of Physical Geography...

    The inability of so many people to grasp this basic, qualitative distinction, is frankly astounding!

    I am an Irish Citizen, an inhabitant of the British Isles Archipelago, and an Insular European....NONE of these facts contradict each other in any way whatsoever; and to think otherwise simply betrays profound ignorance of the entire matter!