The Names of the British Isles


W. Prydain, C. Breten, B. Breizh-(Veur), I. An Bhreatain, G. Breatainn, M. Yn Vretyn.

Britain or Great Britain is the name of the largest island of the British Isles, though it has become largely synonymous with the United Kingdom. The name derives from an original PC. *Kwritannjā, which is a derivative of a stem meaning 'shape, form' (W. pryd 'aspect, image; shape, form', OI. cruth 'shape, form', creth 'poetry'). The ancient PC. form is reflected by W. Prydain.

At some early time, the initial P- became B- and the single medial -t- was doubled by analogy with words like PC. *Brittū 'Briton', *Brittones 'Britons', giving Br. *Brit(t)annjā. This word was borrowed into the Gaelic languages and into Latin as Brittannia, giving E. Britain and F. Bretagne, hence C. Breten. The B. Breizh 'Brittany, Britain' is from Br. *Brittjā, a derivative of *Brittū 'Briton'. The latter and its oblique stem *Britton- give WC. Brython 'Britons', B. Brezhoneg 'Breton', and through Latin, E. British, Briton, EF. Breton.

The same PC. stem *kwrit- occurs in the Welsh and Old Irish names for the Picts - W. Prydyn, OI. Cruithne, Cruithnech - which suggests that the Latin name Picti 'painted' was a direct attempt at translation from Celtic.


W. Llydaw, C. Breten-Vian, B. Breizh, I. An Bhriotáin, G. A' Bhreatainn Bheag, M. Yn Vritaan.

Though not part of the British Isles, Brittany shares a name and a history with Britain so deserves a place here. The English, Irish and Manx words are all borrowed from OF. Bretaigne < L. Britannia 'Britain', which name was imported to Brittany along with the British language in the migration period c.450-c.600. Prior to this, that part of Gaul had been called Armorica, from PC. *Arimorikā meaning 'place facing the sea' (B. arvor 'coast'). Cornish and Scots Gaelic both use phrases meaning 'Little Britain', based on the L. Britannia Minor (see Wales below). The Breton name Breizh, ultimately from the same Celtic source as the Latin, is explained above.

W. Llydaw is an isolated word in the modern Celtic languages, but has equivalents in MI. Letha and OB. Letau. All are from PC. *Litawjā meaning 'broad one', which is cognate with W. llydan 'wide' etc. It is thought the word originally meant 'broad land, continent' and hence came to refer to that part of the continent opposite Britain, then finally to that part inhabited by Britons.


W. Cernyw, C. Kernow, B. Kernev, I. Corn na Breataine, G. A' Chòrn, M. Yn Chorn.

The name is from PC. *Kornowjā, from the PC. stem *korn- 'horn' (W. corn CB. korn, G. còrn), which can be seen in the modern Gaelic forms. There is evidence from Welsh that this name originally applied to the whole arm of south-western Britian from Somerset to modern Cornwall but it was eventually restricted to its modern sense. The word was borrowed into OE. and the word wēalas 'foreigners, Welsh, Britons' was added.

In the Iron Age and into the early Medieval period the area was inhabited by the Dumnonii (< PC. *dumno- 'deep; world'), who gave their name to Devon (W. Dyfnaint, C. Dewnens).


W. Lloegr, C. Pow Sows, B. Bro-Saoz, I. Sasana, G. Sasainn, M. Sostyn.

The English name is from OE. Englaland 'land of the Angles', which won out against the equivalent Seaxland 'land of the Saxons' as a term for the nation as a whole.

Most of the Celtic names derive from L. Saxō 'Saxon' < OE. Seaxe. Breton and Cornish both mean literally 'country of (the) Saxon' whilst the Gaelic forms are from OI. Saxain 'Saxons' < L. Saxones. The Manx form looks to have undergone metathesis to *Sascainn > Sostyn.

W. Lloegr is something mystery, but may derive from a PC. *Laikor meaning 'warriors' (see here for more information).


W. Iwerddon, C. Iwerdhon, Wordhen, B. Iwerzhon, I. Éire, G. Èirinn, M. Nerin.

All these forms are from a PC. *Φīwerjū, Φīwerjon-, believed to mean 'fertile land', with all the modern forms except I. Éire deriving from the oblique stem (see Scotland below). The original nominitive singular is retained in W. Cefnfor Iwerydd 'Atlantic Ocean'. The initial N- of the Manx is from the article (originally Yn Erin).

The OI. Ériu was borrowed into OE. as Īras 'Irish' and Īraland 'Ireland'. Much earlier, PC. *Φīwernī 'people of Éire' was borrowed as Gk. Iverni, Hierni and L. Hibernia.

The terms Gael, to describe a Celtic-speaking inhabitant of Ireland, Scotland or Mann, and Gaelic, to describe their language and culture are - surprisingly - not Gaelic but Brythonic. OI. Goídel 'Gael' and Goídelg 'Irish language' were relatively late borrowings from the predecessor of W. Gwyddel 'Irishman', Gwyddeleg 'Irish language', which are derived from Br. *Wēdelos and *Wēdelicā, from the same root as W. gŵydd 'wild, savage; uncultivated'.

Mann, Isle of Man

W. Ynys Manaw, C. Manow, Enys Vanow, B. Manav, I. Oileán Mhanann, G. Eilean Mhanainn, M. Mannin, Ellan Vannin.

All these forms are from slightly different reflexes of the same root: the Brythonic forms are from PC. *Monawjā and the Gaelic forms from *Monaw(j)ū, Monaw(j)on-. The name is connected with several others - W. Manaw, a medieval district around the Firth of Forth, W. Môn 'Anglesey' (< Br. *Monā) and the mythological figures I. Manannán mac Lir and W. Manawydan fab Llŷr - all of which are believed to be derived from the PIE. root *men- meaning 'to rise'. There is some evidence that W. Môn was also used for Mann, as in the 10th century poem Armes Prydain, which contains the line Gwydyl Iwerdon, Mon a Phrydyn "the Gaels of Ireland, Mann and north Britain".


W. Yr Alban, Sgotland, C. Alban, B. Bro-Skos, I. Albain, G. Alba, M. Nalbin.

In most cases the modern name for Scotland is derived from OI. Albu, gsg. Alban, the Brythonic forms being borrowed from Gaelic in the Middle Ages after it became synonymous with the medieval kingdom. The name was once applicable to the whole of Britain - indeed, it it the oldest attested name for Britain - and is identical in origin to the mythical name Albion, from PC. *Albijū, Albijon-. The name did not survive in Brythonic as a proper noun, but did remain in W. elfydd 'world, earth; land'. It is believed the original PC. word referred to the surface of the world, or the human world as opposed to otherworlds.

E. Scotland is formed from OE. Scottas 'Scots', from L. Scotti or its Celtic equivalent. Originally inhabiting Ireland, Scotti was later used to describe the Gaels who inhabited Scotland and Man. B. Bro-Skos is derived from F. Écosse < L. Scotia.


W. Cymru, C. Kembra, B. Kembre, I. An Bhreatain Bheag, G. A' Chuimrigh, M. Bretyn.

The W. Cymru meaning 'Wales' is a late alteration of Cymry meaning 'Welsh people', derived from Br. *Combrogī 'compatriots' < *brogo- 'country' (WCB. bro). The Breton and Cornish forms may be equivalent derivations from British but are probably later borrowings, as is Scots Gaelic.

The Irish means 'Little Britain' in contrast to An Bhreatain Mhór 'Great Britain' and the Manx is identical to the word for Britain, but without the article.

The English name for Wales is from OE wēalas 'foreigners, Welsh, Britons'.