The word Britain is used to refer to the island of Great Britain, and is also to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, or UK. As it’s the place I’ve lived most of my life, I thought I’d look into the origins of this word.

SS Great Britain

Britain comes from the Middle English Breteyn (Britain, Brittany), from the Old English Bryten/Breoton (Britain), from the Latin Britannia (the British Isles, Great Britain, the Roman province of Britain) – the land of the Britanni (Britons), from the Proto-Brythonic *Prɨdėn (Britain), from *Pritanī, which is possibly related to *Prɨdɨn (Picts), and the Ancient Greek Πρεττανική (Prettanikḗ – British Isles). The name Brittany comes from the same root [source].

Until the 1st century BC Britain was known as Albion in Latin, which comes from the Proto-Celtic *Albiū (luminous world, upper world, high mountain, alp, alpine pasture, Britain), from the Proto-Indo-European *albʰós (white) – possibly refering to the white chalk cliffs along the south coast of Britian [source].

After the Roman conquest of Britain in 43 AD, the name Britannia was used to refer to the Roman province of Britain, which consisted of what is now England and Wales and part of southern Scotland [source].

In Welsh, Britian is referred to as Ynys Prydain (The Island of Britain) or Prydain Fawr (Great Britian). These words, along with Prydyn (Scotland, (land of the) Picts), come from the same Proto-Brythonic root as Britain [source].

In Cornish, Britain is Breten and Great Britain is Breten Veur [source].

In Breton, Great Britain is Breizh-Veur and Brittany is Breizh.

The Irish name for Wales is An Bhreatain Bheag (“Little Britain”), while Great Britain is An Bhreatain Mhór, and Brittany is An Bhriotáin [source].

In Scottish Gaelic, A’ Bhreatainn Bheag is Brittany, Wales is a’ Chuimrigh, which comes from the Welsh name for Wales, Cymru and Great Britain is A’ Bhreatainn Mhór [source].

7 thoughts on “Britland

  1. Does Brittany come from the same root?
    La Bretagne vient-elle de la même origine?

  2. There’s a British company that publishes something called The Atlas of True Names, showing the original meanings of toponyms. It shows “Land of the Tattooed Ones” as a name for Britain.

  3. Marco – The Latin word maior comes from the Proto-Italic *magjōs, from the Proto-Indo-European *méǵh₂yōs (greater), from *meǵh₂- (great) and ‎*-yōs (comparative suffix) [source]. Words from the same PIE root include: maes (field) in Welsh, (plain) in Irish [more details].

    The Irish and Scottish Gaelic word mór (big, large, great), comes from the Old Irish mór/már (big, great), from the Proto-Celtic *māros (big, great), from the Proto-Indo-European *moh₁ros (great), from *meh₁- (to measure) [source]. Words from the same PIE root include: meal in English, Mal (time) in German, and mētior (I measure, estimate) in Latin, which became medir (to measure, gauge) in Spanish and Portuguese [source].

    So, no maior is not etymologically related to mór as far as we know, but Albion is related to the Latin albus – see: source]

    Michael – Yes, Brittany does come from the same root as Britain.

    Jim – in the 4th century BC Pytheas, the Greek geographer and explorer, referred to Britain as the νῆσος Πρεττανική (nêsos Prettanikḗ) or Βρεττανίαι (Brettaníai) and to the people of Britain as Pretanoí or Bretanoí. It is thought to come from the Proto-Celtic *Pritanī, which meant something like “people of the forms” or more poetically “the Tattooed Ones” who lived in the “Land of the Tattooed Ones” [source].

  4. Just by way of ‘completing the set’ of Celtic languages, in Gaelg (Manx Gaelic), Wales is Bretyn, while Britain is Bretyn Mooar, and Brittany is Britaan. As in Gaeilge and Gàidhlig, these names are frequently preceded by the definite article Y, causing mutation, e.g. Y Vretyn.

  5. The Old English name was ‘Brettland’ as well as ‘Breten’ according to Sweet, Henry “The student’s dictionary of Anglo-Saxon” (Oxford: 1897), so I think your ‘Britland’ should be ‘Bretland’!

  6. In my post yesterday, I should have said “Just by way of ‘completing the set’ of Goidelic languages …” My apologies to the Brythonic languages!

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