By in Random

Understanding the Commonwealth, the British Isles and More

I shared what little knowledge I had about the difference between the United Kingdom and Great Britain. I found out that I wasn't the only one with this lack of understanding. To my surprise, there were a number of members who revealed they, too, were unaware, and other members, particularly MegL , who jumped in to aid in increasing the understanding of all. If interested, you can read that post here .

In summation of understanding the difference between Britain, Great Britain and the United Kingdom is this:

England and Wales together are referred to as Britain

England, Wales and Scotland together are referred to as Great Britain

England, Wales, Scotland and North Ireland are collectively referred to as the United Kingdom, or more fully, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

But wait -- there is more to know along these same lines. You don't want to stop now that you're on a roll, do you? I decided I just had to now learn: What is the Commonwealth? What are the British Isles?

The Commonwealth , also referred to as the British Commonwealth, is a group of 53 independent countries that have agreed to come together via the Commonwealth for the common good of all the nations concerned. Many of the member countries were formerly part of the British Empire.

The Head of the Commonwealth is primarily a symbolic position, held at this time by HM Queen Elizabeth II.

The United Kingdom is a member of the Commonwealth, meaning England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are members.

Nations voluntarily choose to join or leave the Commonwealth, with each nation having one vote regardless of its population, economy, etc.

The British Isles are more of a geographical grouping than a political or economic one. England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, the Isle of Man and many other small islands constitute the British Isles.

Does it only seem a bit complicated because I am a little older now and slower to grasp new things, or is it truly a mind twister?

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wolfgirl569 wrote on August 25, 2015, 7:35 PM

To me it is truly a mind twister. But we dont have anything like that in the U.S. If you grew up with it it would seem normal

JohnRoberts wrote on August 25, 2015, 8:53 PM

But why de we consider to be English the same as British. Wales may be part of Britain but they are Welsh not British.

cmoneyspinner wrote on August 25, 2015, 8:55 PM

(O.o) You have uncovered one of my fears. I'm afraid to use the word “British”. Have had it explained to me but I'm still terrified of saying it!

- So if my friends say they're from England or Wales, it's OK to call them British. Right?
- If they say they're from Scotland it's still OK to call them British. Right?
- But if they're from North Ireland are they Irish? Is there a South Ireland? Are they Irish? (O.o)

Need an answer to these 3 or I can't move on to the Commonwealth and the British Isles. :)

Feisty56 wrote on August 25, 2015, 9:07 PM

I agree -- if we grew up with it, it would seem normal. Isn't it a bit appalling to realize how little we learn about the rest of the world during our basic school years? I know it is to me.

Feisty56 wrote on August 25, 2015, 9:14 PM

It is not incorrect or inaccurate to term people from England, Wales or Scotland as British, nor is it incorrect or inaccurate to call people from England, English, those from Wales, Welsh, and those from Scotland, Scottish. As far as when we are writing about people in those areas, I've read that using "British" is the preferred term, but I don't know that to be gospel.

In addition, people who live in the various regions may well refer to themselves as Welsh versus British, etc. In the post about my admission of ignorance, WordChazer explained in a comment that although he was born in England, he considers himself British. There's a bit more to it if you'd care to read it for clarity.

Feisty56 wrote on August 25, 2015, 9:20 PM

If you don't mind reading my response to JohnRoberts comment above, I've answered (to the best of my understanding) your first two questions. People who hale from Northern Ireland can accurately be referred to as British or Irish. The Republic of Ireland (the southern portion of what was formerly Ireland) is not part of Great Britain or the United Kingdom, so my understanding is they are Irish, but not British.

Again, some individuals from any of the areas may have personal preferences as to how they identify, but without knowing each individual, you or I or anyone else would have no way of knowing what that preference is.

I hope I've answered your concerns and have done so correctly. I need WordChazer , or MegL or Rufuszen to come by and double-check my work. : )

VinceSummers wrote on August 25, 2015, 9:39 PM

Yes, you found a winner topic, , no question. But as to all the names the Brits choose to consider (well, apart from horrid name-calling), I suggest the only one that fits is LIMEY. Blimey, a limey!

wolfgirl569 wrote on August 25, 2015, 10:16 PM

But just think of how much time would have to be spent just on teaching that. At this time I dont think it would be possible with everything else

Paulie wrote on August 25, 2015, 11:46 PM

Thank you very much for your great explanation. As to the Commonwealth, since the United States was previously colonies of Great Britain, could the U.S. enter the Commonweath if it wanted to?

MegL wrote on August 26, 2015, 2:28 AM

If you meet people from Northern Ireland and don't know their preference, you might be best to avoid referring to them as either. Feisty56 is correct in saying they could be referred to as either, however, for some people, their personal choice for how they are seen is extremely important. As far as I know, anyone from Scotland would prefer to be called Scottish but maybe Kasman could comment on whether they would mind being called British. People from England and Wales are British, however, many of those from Wales prefer to be called Welsh and definitely NOT English. Mind you, from my own travels and those of friends or relatives, most people from the UK tend to get called "English" and get strange looks when people try to describe the set up of the UK. The majority of people in the UK live in England. Only 3 per cent live in Northern Ireland and only a slightly higher percentage in Wales and Scotland, so the odds are very good that anyone you meet from the UK will be English.

MegL wrote on August 26, 2015, 2:32 AM

All countries of the Commonwealth accept the Queen as their Head of State. If the US were to replace their President with the Queen, they might be accepted!!!!! There have been a few very funny (well to the British) posts circulating on the Internet with mock pieces of law stating what will happen now that the USA has been accepted back as part of the British Isles. I have seen them posted on Facebook and suppose they could be found with a search, if you were so inclined.

Paulie wrote on August 26, 2015, 3:01 AM

The U.S. accepted back as part of the British Isles? I will have to check this out. When you say Head of State, do you mean figure Head of State? Because I don't think Canada and Australia would let the Queen run state affairs for them.

MegL wrote on August 26, 2015, 3:04 AM

The Queen is the final port of appeal in those countries.

Paulie wrote on August 26, 2015, 3:20 AM

I remember that during the Vietnam War, Australia sent soldiers to fight with the Americans. If the leaders of Australia were not of the same opinion about sending soldiers, then would the Queen have made the final decision. It seems like she still has a lot of power.

Rufuszen wrote on August 26, 2015, 8:04 AM

Many years ago, I went to the Commonwealth Institute. Sadly it is gone now.

MegL wrote on August 26, 2015, 8:06 AM

The Queen is a constitutional monarch. She does not have that power. The government would make that decision.

Ellis wrote on August 26, 2015, 9:16 AM

Pretty much the same as a Texan being called an American. I am English but also part of the bigger entity of Britain (British) which is part of a bigger entity of Europe (European)...but I only allow little green men call me an

Ellis wrote on August 26, 2015, 9:41 AM

One has to remember that the original colonies only consisted of 13 states I believe....I suspect the other 37 states acquired after independence may not be so keen on the idea..

alexdg1 wrote on August 26, 2015, 9:51 AM

Actually, if the American educational system was better than it is, we'd all be more knowledgeable and more aware of what goes on in the world. But, the way it is set up, with each state having its own curriculum and every local school board deciding which books are used and which aren't, it is a system that aims for mediocrity rather than excellence.

Also, we have become a nation of test-takers. Preparing kids to take standardized tests and the dullness of the curriculum practically kills off their innate curiosity and desire to learn.

CoralLevang wrote on August 26, 2015, 11:44 AM

I appreciated this so much, thank you!

I might also note, just in case Kasman fails to do so, that it is with the inclusion of Scotland that makes Britain ... Great.... emoticon :winking:

cmoneyspinner wrote on August 26, 2015, 12:30 PM

Feisty56 - Thank you. LOL. I've given up on trying to get it right. I just call my friends by their names rather than risk insult. It's better people think I'm an ignorant American than for me to prove it to them beyond a reasonable doubt. :) When I first got married my husband gave me a real schooling on how to detect accents so I could tell who was from The Bahamas, Jamaica, Trinidad, etc. His friends were from various islands and they all sounded alike to me! I decided the safest route was to just listen to them carefully and try to make sure I understood what they were saying. :)

AliCanary wrote on August 26, 2015, 3:10 PM

I actually knew all of this except for England and Wales being Britain. Of course, it takes Scotland to make it Great--just ask Kasman ! emoticon :smile:

Kasman wrote on August 26, 2015, 3:42 PM

Paulie - It may surprise you to know that Britain also had troops in Vietnam. There wasn't many of them and they were there strictly as ''advisors'' (yeah, right). I have never been able to find out exactly which unit(s) but there is a Vietnam Bar to the General Service Medal which indicates that holders of the GSM with Vietnam Bar served in Vietnam. Since the GSM was introduced in 1962 this can only refer to the Vietnam War. As well as the ''advisors'' (more than likely SAS who may or may not have been directly involved in the conflict) there were a number of Royal Military Police engaged in guarding the British Embassy in Saigon and I wouldn't be surprised if units of the Royal Marines (or the SBS) were also there.

Last Edited: August 26, 2015, 4:34 PM

valmnz wrote on August 26, 2015, 3:55 PM

Not sure I agree with all that about the Commonwealth. Queen Elizabeth is our head of State, and is not decided by anyone else. We have the Queen, but she is not voted in. She just is, or whoever the reigning monarch is. In New Zealand we have our own elected Prime Minister, who is our head of State, but under the umbrella of the Commonwealth. Now, after reading what you've written here, I'm going to have to further investigation.

Feisty56 wrote on August 26, 2015, 4:37 PM

I think most educators would agree with you on these points. Now we just have to get those in the ivory towers to appreciate that.

Feisty56 wrote on August 26, 2015, 4:41 PM

Thank you again for your valuable input in these topics. My own thinking was not so much as to how to refer to individual people, but in referring to a large group, such as saying, " The British enjoy a different kind of..." It has evolved now into wanting to understand it all better, so your assistance and the input of others who actually live in the areas discussed has great value.

Feisty56 wrote on August 26, 2015, 4:41 PM

You do know how to put things into perspective. : )

Feisty56 wrote on August 26, 2015, 4:45 PM

I think you have the right idea. I was interested mostly for the purpose of correctly referring to a group when writing. I've gone over and above that here, but my curiosity got the better of me.

alexdg1 wrote on August 26, 2015, 5:21 PM

Actually, it's the local public school boards and state legislators that we have to get to appreciate this. As long as we continue to rely on an academic model that has not changed much since the late 19th Century, things won't change.

Sigh. I've known about the British Commonwealth and its predecessor, the British Empire, since I was a kid. I used to read encyclopedias for fun.

Paulie wrote on August 27, 2015, 5:15 AM

Thank you very much for your explanation. Thailand is also a constitutional monarchy.

Paulie wrote on August 27, 2015, 5:16 AM

Yes, this is surprising to me, because I never heard anything mentioned about it. Thanks for sharing this story.

Kasman wrote on August 28, 2015, 6:01 PM

MegL CoralLevang AliCanary - I consider myself Scottish first and British second (as do many Scots) but I don't object to being called British. Being called ''English'' however . . .

Last Edited: August 28, 2015, 6:03 PM

CoralLevang wrote on August 30, 2015, 1:45 AM

Well, as we have residents of Wales ( MegL ), Scotland ( Kasman ), England ( Rufuszen ) (just to name three), I think we could get them to chime in here, as well as many others from our "mother country(ies)." LOL

CoralLevang wrote on August 30, 2015, 1:47 AM

*laughs* I love you so much, Ellis , as you never cease to make me laugh.

And I have known several Brits who are offended by being called "Europeans." LOL

CoralLevang wrote on August 30, 2015, 1:51 AM

Kasman You could NEVER be called "English." The Scottish have learned to cook better. emoticon :winking:

Feisty56 wrote on August 31, 2015, 1:55 PM

I don't know, VinceSummers , a single collective name lumping everyone together may not be welcomed at all. We Americans are often viewed -- and rightly so -- as being all about the U.S. Coming up with a single moniker smacks of more evidence of our egocentricity.

Feisty56 wrote on August 31, 2015, 2:03 PM

What was the function of the Commonwealth Institute, Rufuszen ?

VinceSummers wrote on August 31, 2015, 2:07 PM

What? The U.S. egocentric? NO. NO. Well, DUH. The U.S. is full of egocentrics.

Feisty56 wrote on August 31, 2015, 2:10 PM

MegL , I am confused about the information that all countries of the Commonwealth accept HM Queen Elizabeth II as their Head of State. Perhaps I'm confusing the terms "Head of State" and "Monarch" to mean the same thing when in fact they don't, and if so, I apologize for being so dense. The official website of the British Monarchy ( explains under the heading, "What Is a Realm," that in fact only 15 of the 53 member countries of the Commonwealth accept the Queen as their monarch.

I wouldn't keep belaboring what seem like small points, but if I am going to have an understanding, I would like it to be accurate and not based on my false assumptions. : )

Feisty56 wrote on August 31, 2015, 2:11 PM

That's a "great" way of looking at it. I know, bad pun. : )

Feisty56 wrote on August 31, 2015, 2:13 PM

See, I knew there would be some Americans who knew this information. : ) Unfortunately, I was not one of them, but I'm getting there.

MegL wrote on August 31, 2015, 2:18 PM The head of the commonwealth is "HM Queen Elizabeth II. The Head of The Commonwealth’s role includes, a number of symbolic functions"
"The Commonwealth’s roots go back to the British Empire when some countries were ruled directly or indirectly by Britain. Some of these countries became self-governing while retaining Britain’s monarch as Head of State. They formed the British Commonwealth of Nations.
In 1949 the association we know today – The Commonwealth – came into being.

In that year India became a republic but still wished to remain a member of the association. In response, leaders agreed that membership did not have to be based on allegiance to the British Crown. Commonwealth members were “free and equal members of the Commonwealth of Nations, freely co-operating in the pursuit of peace, liberty and progress” - The London Declaration 1949.
Since then, independent countries from Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and the Pacific have joined The Commonwealth."

Feisty56 wrote on August 31, 2015, 2:21 PM

I'm afraid I'm confused too, the more I look into all of this and try to develop an accurate understanding. I realize the Queen is not a voted-in position in the UK, but according to the FAQs at the official Commonwealth site (, it reads that the next Head of the Commonwealth will be decided by a "consensus by Commonwealth Heads of Government."

I am wondering that since the reign of HM Queen Elizabeth II began in 1952, only three years after the formation of the Modern Commonwealth, that perhaps that is where the assumption comes from that the UKs reigning royal head will always also be the Head of the Commonwealth?

AliCanary wrote on August 31, 2015, 2:34 PM

I think it was a good idea to write about it--it's very helpful information for everyone!

Feisty56 wrote on August 31, 2015, 2:40 PM

I would never think to call you "English."

AliCanary wrote on August 31, 2015, 2:44 PM

LOL, I finally read through the other comments and realized I made the same joke as CoralLevang --just after she did! Maybe one of these days, I will read through the comments first and avoid looking like a dork :p

Kasman wrote on August 31, 2015, 3:27 PM

It is not uncommon for a sports star to be referred to as English if they are English but referred to as British when they are Scottish . The English are the worst at doing this but I have heard overseas commentators making this mistake and it really annoys us Scots because in the eyes of many foreigners British means English. If you really want to annoy a Scot call him an Englishman - but make sure you have a good head start on him first! emoticon :smile:

valmnz wrote on August 31, 2015, 3:36 PM

Your source material is actually making it more complicated than it really is. I think while he Queen is right at the top, there is someone like a CEO of the Commonwealth, like a person who manages the collective group made up of all the member countries. Here in New Zealand, we have an elected Prime Minister, and other Commonwealth countries have their own heads of government.

Feisty56 wrote on August 31, 2015, 8:13 PM

Thank you, again, my friend. : )

Feisty56 wrote on August 31, 2015, 8:14 PM

Now see, I didn't think "dork" at all. I was thinking, "Great minds think alike." : )

Feisty56 wrote on August 31, 2015, 8:15 PM

I believe it's finally sinking in to the hard noggin of mine. : )

Feisty56 wrote on August 31, 2015, 8:20 PM

I do blame the media for many shortcuts and actual mistakes such as these -- the general public reads/hears/sees these mistakes, but after a while it becomes so commonplace that everyone accepts it as approved usage.

Lol, I'm not much of a runner, so I best use the correct term. : )

AliCanary wrote on August 31, 2015, 11:12 PM

I'm also given to understand that you can call someone a Scot, a Scotsman, or Scottish, but never, EVER call him Scotch. That's whiskey! In America, we frequently hear the term "Scotch-Irish" to describe people like me, but I always say "Scots-Irish". Is that right?

lexiconlover wrote on September 30, 2015, 1:44 PM

It's funny that we didn't learn any of this stuff growing up. Maybe schools were fostering the out of sight, out of mind approach?