What’s the Difference Between Great Britain and the United Kingdom?

Updated: Sep. 07, 2018

Hint: They're actually not interchangeable.

Union Jack flags in Regent Street, London, UKAlexandra King/Shutterstock

When referring to our neighbors across the pond, it’s not uncommon to hear the terms “United Kingdom” and “Great Britain” used almost interchangeably. But, you would definitely be wrong if you do so—there IS a difference between the two that has its roots in both geography and politics.

Great Britain refers to the island of Britain, which, politically, is composed of Wales, Scotland, and England as well as some of the small islands off the coast of the big island, such as the Isle of Wight. In the middle ages, “Britain” also referred to a tiny part of France that is now known as Brittany. Because of that, “Great Britain” was used specifically for the big island, geographically speaking. Find out the words that mean different things in America and Great Britain.

The term “United Kingdom,” however, does not cut both ways, as it is a purely political term. The United Kingdom is an independent country composed of Scotland, Wales, England (essentially, all of Great Britain) as well as Northern Ireland. The official name of the country is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

So, all of Great Britain is within the United Kingdom, but the United Kingdom is not 100 percent composed of the countries that make up Great Britain. Make sense? Next, find out popular British sayings you should know when you make your next visit across the pond.

[Source: Encyclopedia Britannica]