The difference between England, Great Britain, the United Kingdom and the British Isles is one of the great semantic challenges of – what shall I even call it? The English-speaking part of Northwestern Europe, let’s say.
If it’s a semantic challenge in English, the language of the natives, imagine what it’s like in translation, especially in languages spoken far away. In Vietnamese for instance. This has several different names for nearby nations such as the Chinese and Koreans, but no separate word for ‘Britain’. All it has is Anh for ‘England’ (or ‘English’), and the meaning of this one syllable has had to be stretched to near-breaking point in order to express all the political subtleties.
The results are remarkable:
- Great Britain: Đảo Anh – ‘English island’.
Well, England occupies over 60 percent of the island. But are the Welsh and Scots going to like it?
- Great Britain, alternative translation: Đại Anh – ‘Great England’.
This may cause even worse blood among the two junior partners. ‘Great England’, forsooth! The Vietnamese too consider this second best, but that’s because the same name also refers to Daying County in China.
Strangely, Brittany – Little Britain, basically – does have a Vietnamese name of its own: the French colonisers have taught the Vietnamese to call the French region ‘Bretagne’.
- United Kingdom (UK): Vương quốc Liên hiệp Anh và Bắc Ireland – ‘United Kingdom of England and Northern Ireland’.
This is tricky. Shouldn’t that be ‘United Kingdom of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland’? A bit on the long side though. For now, at any rate. Or perhaps just ‘United Kingdom’, Vương quốc Liên hiệp? I’m not sure why, but a Google search suggests this is never used. Perhaps there are some other ‘united kingdoms’ in East Asian history?
- British Isles: Quần Đảo Anh – ‘English Group of Islands’ or ‘English Archipelago’.
Ireland has long disliked being subsumed under the term ‘British Isles’; being considered part of the ‘English Isles’ will go down no better there, I suspect.
Finally, you may wonder about the terminology for American English versus British English. The Vietnamese are well aware of the difference. They label the language (tiếng) of the New World Anh Mỹ, the other… Anh Anh.