Ordance Survey Promoting the Use of the Term “British Isles”

This post is about the Ordnance Survey claim that the term “British Isles” is a “purely geographical term”. I recently asked them on their blog what was the justification for it being “purely geographical” The Ordnance Surrey maintain that it is not in their remit to discuss the logic of this term, but still insist on using it, promoting its use and describing it as “purely geographical term” despite it clearly not being one. Just because you claim it repeatably, doesn’t make it so!

If they defined the term as the islands of Britain, Ireland and the Isle of Man then I would agree it was a geographical term. Note if you define it as the UK, Ireland etc… then it is automatically a geo-political term, as the UK is not a geographical term but a political term defining a country. The addition of the Channel Islands make it a geopolitical term.

I would suggest, however, that in this modern age of continued cooperation between our government’s and people that we could be progressive enough to come up with a better term that is not hindered by the political and linguistic problems that this term causes. The ambiguous nature of the term, its continued inaccurate use and extension to political and cultural spheres make me realise the only way forward is to abandon the term and retire it to the dustbin of history. I am not offended by the term, but by its ignorant and lazy use; the term should not be used in this modern age of mutual respect between our islands. There is no need for such a term, certainly outside of purely geographical literature, or justification for its use. There is always a more accurate and less ambiguous term that can be used for the groupings of islands referred to.

If it is not in the remit of the Ordnance Survey to comment on this term, then why is it in its remit to define and promote its use? Especially when it is known to cause offence by the way it is used? They are clear about not inaccurately using other terms so as to not offend people, yet they don’t adequatily do so in this case?

I see no reason to use this ambigious term unless you are trying to cause offensive. If you disagree please enlighten me. When would be acceptable to use it?

Who is Offended?

I started writing this blog because I wanted to popularise the ambiguous nature and confusion caused by the term “British Isles”. The ambiguousness is caused by the multiple definitions used, with different organisations choosing different ones. This results in one never knowing what is meant when the term “British Isles” is referred to. To make the whole term more confusing, organisations are not consistent in their use of this term, using it to often refer to some other groupings of Islands. Commonly, it is used as a lazy short hand to refer to UK and Ireland.

The Irish Government does not like the term and would like to see its use “discontinued”. In the Good Friday agreement the term is not used, with the term “these islands” being used instead. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dermot Ahern, when asked in the Dáil about its use, said:

“The British Isles is not an officially recognised term in any legal or inter-governmental sense. It is without any official status. The Government, including the Department of Foreign Affairs, does not use this term.”

Minister for Foreign Affairs (Mr. D. Ahern) in Dáil Éireann 2005, Vol 606 No. 10.

The use of the term by the BBC has been discussed here before; here and here. I am still waiting to hear back from them about their inconsistent and ambiguous use of the term that leads to offence. However, knowing the Irish Government’s stated view on the matter, as above, I was surprised to find that the European Commission, Directorate of Translations endorse this terms use in their style-guide, defining it (in its most common incarnation) as:

“The geographical term British Isles includes Ireland and the Crown Dependencies (Isle of Man and Channel Islands).”

They go on to use this term in many publications referring to the countries almost as one country, especially when referring to waters around our countries. At first, I thought that they wanted to be inclusive of the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, but neither of these islands is in the EU. Nearly every time they clarify that what they mean by the “British Isles” by saying either “i.e. Britain and Ireland” or “i.e. UK and Ireland”. Why can’t they just omit the term “British Isles” that erroneously makes the countries sound like they are somehow politically linked? Especially when they don’t use the term in the way it is defined in the style-guide. Why is there only one geographical term used to describe two or more member states defined in the style-guide? Why does every other country get to be referred to by its country name?

The Guardian define the term “British Isles” in their style-guide as:

“A geographical term taken to mean Great Britain, Ireland and some or all of the adjacent islands such as Orkney, Shetland and the Isle of Man. The phrase is best avoided, given its (understandable) unpopularity in the Irish Republic. Alternatives adopted by some publications are British and Irish Isles or simply Britain and Ireland”

The Guardian has got this almost completely correct. Firstly, they have omitted the Channel Islands. The inclusion of the Channel Islands would make it a geo-political term. The only reason it is included is because the UK Government defined the term to include all the islands that were somehow “British” and the term has been linked to nationality in the past. This is the only reason why other islands off the North-West Coast of Europe are not include e.g. the Faroe Islands.

This question was asked some time ago on-line about the Faroe Island’s inclusion in the “British Isles” . The response to it are interesting:

“No way”

 

“Not really. They’re also closer to Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Ireland than they are to Denmark, but that doesn’t really count for anything other than their location.

A lot of Faroese are proud of their individual heritage and culture. They don’t really want to be lumped in as a part of another country. Just because a nation is small, doesn’t mean they can’t strive for their own identity.

 

Singapore is half the size of the Faroe Islands (although admittedly with a much larger population). Would you consider Singapore to be a part of Malaysia?”

It is interesting, and I have found from experience common, for people outside of Ireland to refer to the “British Isles” as one country. Could I not make the same argument about Ireland as they do here? Why would we want to be lumped in with the UK, when we have our own unique language, culture, and out-look on life. I am not arguing for the Faroe Islands to be part of any such group just pointing out that the term “British Isles” is a geo-political term that only relates to islands that were historically considered “British”?

I agree with “[t]he phrase is best avoided…”. It is not “purely”  geographical as stated by the Ordnance Survey. If it is, I would like to see the justification for it and wonder why it is used in research literature to refer to just the UK, Ireland and Isle of Man? However, I would go further and say that the term should not be used. There is no need or justification for it.

Gen Map, a geographical software company define the term as the UK and Ireland. This definition, of just the UK and Ireland (and sometime the Isle Man) is common in research. Why don’t they just say the UK and Ireland?  Sure who would be offended by that? And in most cases (like the EU usage and common usage) it would be more accurate.

The populations of the UK, Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands are shown the the table below.

UK

62641000

Ireland

4487000

Northern Ireland

1789000

Isle of Man

83327

Channel Islands

15800

Population estimates for Ireland and the British Islands (all from Google)

The first column in the table below has the “official” definition of the terms with the population each term refers to. In the third column is a rough estimate of the absolute population “offended” or opposed on some level to the definition. This estimate of the number of people offended is simplistic at best. For example, the number of people offended by the term “British Isles” does not include the number of people offended by it in outside the island of Ireland i.e. people in the UK, USA etc… Similarly, the number people estimated to be offended by using the alternative term British Islands is overly optimistic. It does not consider the scores of ‘British nationalists’ opposed to not using this term out of “tradition”, such as the BNP.

“Official’ definition Number of people contained in definition Offended

%

“British Isles” UK, Ireland, Isle of Man, Channel Islands

69016127

5381500

8

British Islands UK, Isle of Man, Channel Islands

64529127

0

0

UK England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland

62641000

99127

0.15

Britain England, Scotland and Wales

60852000

1888127

3

It is clear that the worst term you could use is the “British Isles”. It is the most inaccurate term you could use a synonym to refer to the British Islands, see here for the defination of the British Islands. It offends the equivalent of 8% of the British Islands’ population. This is equivalent, as Ireland is not part of the British Islands. The most inclusive and acceptable term, after the British Islands, is the UK. This offends much less than 1% of the total population of the British Islands. It would seem that maybe this would be a reasonable alternative term for Team GB after all. Team UK would include over 99% of the people who could qualify for the term. Maybe Gregory Cambell wasn’t so wrong after all, see here.

What is in a Name?

Living here in Britain, and in London in particular, it is hard to escape the Olympics. It’s hard to escape the madness around it. I know I was not very happy paying extra council tax for the event. An event I knew I would never attend, but that is life. My tax money was probably spent on a better cause than the majority of the tax I pay. I certainly enjoyed watching the boxing, the only sport I actually know anything about or had an interest in that was in the Olympics. The women’s boxing was a great addtion in my view and their technique and skill was tremendeous.

I also could not escape the commotion surrounding the naming of teams. There was the arguments around the ‘Team GB’ Soccer. There was the confusion, again with the soccer, around the North Korean team and the South Korean team. Then there was the argument around the name ‘Team GB’ itself.

There were claims that the ‘team GB’ name wasn’t inclusive because it did not include the UK region of Northern Ireland. There has been calls by the devolved government in Northern Ireland for the name to be changed. For example, Gregory Campbell of the DUP made the argument that the name was not inclusive as the full name of the team, team Great Britain and Northern Ireland, is always shortened to ‘Team GB’. The British Olympic committee use ‘Team GB’ officially in all of their branding. He maintains that team name should be team UK, as this would include the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.

However, team UK would not include the Isle of Man nor would it include the Channel Islands. Both of these Islands are Crown Dependencies, but are not part of the UK or the EU, although they hold British passports. These passports are stamped with the name British Islands on them.

English: Passport of the Isle of Man

An Example of a non-UK British Passport from the Isle of Man with British Islands stamped on the cover (note that not all Isle of Man passports have European Union stamped on them as the Isle of Man is not part of the EU. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So what would an appropriate name be? The most accurate would be team British Islands. The British Islands is defined as the UK, Channel Islands and the Isle of Man in the aptly named “Interpretation Act 1978, CHAPTER  30”. This has the advantage of being a legally defined term that is inclusive of the regions that are represented by the current ‘Team GB’.

The British Islands is rarely defined in style guides or used in publications. This is suprising because it is a very usful term. The question is when will the British Goverment sort out the mess surrounding naming things and actually follow their own definations of terms. When they, or others, don’t, someone gets offended.

Is there ever a use for the term “British Isles”?

In this Blog I have made my dislike of the term “British Isles” patent. I have discussed before about the ambiguous nature of this term, and particularly how it used inaccurately by the BBC. Here I will discuss its use by the British Government, and alternatives used for this term by them, in legal documentation.

The term “British Isles” is ambiguous. Not just the use of it by the BBC, but its use by many companies and institutions. For example, when the British Government use the term, you can pick up from the context that they do not refer to Ireland. As, on occasion where they wish to extend something to include Ireland, they explicitly state the “British Isles and Ireland”. The British Government, therefore, are instead referring to the UK, Isle of Man and Channel Islands as the “British Isles”. This definition is somewhat less objectionable, but still ambiguous when used.

There is, however, a legally defined term defined by the British Government for the UK, channel Islands and the Isle of Man, in the aptly named “Interpretation Act 1978, CHAPTER  30”, which defines the “British Islands” as: “..the United Kingdom, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.  [1889]”. Now that term is way better, because (1) it is well defined and (2) it does not suffer from the linguistic difficulties that the term “British Isles” does i.e. implying that Ireland is somehow “British”.

Map of the British Islands

Map of the British Islands (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Therefore, you can avoid all ambiguity by referring to Ireland and the British Islands or vice versa if you need to.

May I also suggest that the British Government consistently use the term. Instead of increasingly using the term “British Isles” as a synonym for the British Islands.

What does the BBC say about the ambiguous and offensive term the “British Isles”?

BBC

BBC (Photo credit: SlipStreamJC)

The BBC said the following to me when asked about if the term “British Isles” was ambiguous or offensive:

“The use of the term “British Isles” is considered acceptable in our house style guide. The vast majority of our readership would understand it as a geographical designation with no insulting undertones.”

English: Flag map of the UK (+ constituent cou...

Flag map of the UK (+ constituent countries) and the Republic of Ireland. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I searched for their style guide and found it after some googleing.

From the BBC’s style guide, Page 39:

“The British Isles is not a political entity. It is a geographical unit, the archipelago off the west coast of continental Europe covering Scotland,Wales, England, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands.

Confused already?”

Note the last line is actually in the manual!

Hmmm. The Republic of Ireland is in the British Isles? Really? The BBC’s own readership, never mind the BBC’s writers, are confused on this one. Just take a look below at comments made by the BBC’s audience in its own site forums!

(if you wish to complain to the BBC about their use of the term “British Isles” then follow this link. If you get an interesting response you can share it in the comments below or send it to me).

“redheylin (24) – Yep, I saw that. But the ‘Britsh Isles’ is a very outmoded term. The Republic of Ireland is not British and the Channel Islands are an really an archipelago more geographically associated with the coast of Normandy (France) rather than part of the British Isles.

It is a bit of an anachronistic phrase.”

http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/pm/2010/02/what_should_we_do.shtml

I like this one. I wish I was articulate and smart enough to make my point so concisely.

In fairness, the following post, in response to someone who is unsure, agrees with the BBC’s own style guide.

“Horse; I’ve no idea if it’s ‘official’ but at school (waaaaay too long ago) we were told that’Great Britain’ is England, Wales & Scotland; ‘United Kingdom’ adds Northern Ireland to those three (as in the UK Passport mentioning ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland’); ‘British Isles’ then adds Eire [sic] to the UK.

So, in some technical way that eludes me, Eire seems to be considered as ‘British’, but plainly isn’t part of the Kingdom any more, since Her Maj is no longer head of state.”

http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/pm/2010/02/what_should_we_do.shtml

P.S. it’s spelt Éire. That’s a fada over the ‘e’ (press and hold ALT-GR SHIFT and any vowel to put a fada over it on any keyboard in the UK or Ireland). In fairness to the above, the naming of the Irish state is confusing. Éire should only be used to refer to Ireland in the Irish medium. The English is Ireland, or after the Republic of Ireland act, the Republic of Ireland is an acceptable description of the state, but not Irish Republic. The Irish Republic was a 32 county, all-Ireland republic declared in 1916, that the IRA are trying to obtain. Understandably, Éire is used in the UK in everyday speech by many (I have not seen or heard it used else where) for the Republic of Ireland to distinguish it from the island of Ireland (which includes Northern Ireland).

This is just one of the numerous arguments in the BBC’s forums that I could pick. Every page where they use the term British Isles, or Great Britain to mean the UK, you find comments usually in the forum demonstrating this confusion. The coverage of the Olympic’s, especially the UK’s Olympic Football team, lead to much confusion.

The BBC’s own journalists add to the confusion by not using their term, as stated in their style guide, consistently. Look at the following quote, for example:

“The flame has travelled around the British Isles, visiting the Republic of Ireland on the way, and will spend its final week touring the Olympic host city.”

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-18854465

This quote from a BBC article demonstrates my point that the term “British Isles” is not needed. Indeed, its the forced use of it that causes ambiguity, and often the offence. Lets take the BBC’s definition of the “British Isles”, as quoted at the top of this page, from their own handbook. Then the quote here is inaccurate on two counts. Firstly, the torch did not travel around the “British Isles”; it didn’t go through the Isle of Man nor did it go to Channel Islands. You can see the path taken by the torch here. Surely what the author meant was that torch travelled around the UK, stopping off in Ireland on the way.Its ease not to cause offence and make an article clear by not using the term “British Isles”

I respect the author’s attempt to try and make clear that the Republic of Ireland is not part of the “British Isles”, but this is the second point where the article is inaccurate according the BBC’s own style guide. From talking to Irish people, this is what most of them think the British mean when they use the term “British Isles” i.e. it doesn’t include the Republic of Ireland. As such, they ignore the term, as it doesn’t relate to them. The only way forward is to stop using the term and leave it to gather dust in some archive.

The BBC needs to show that it is big enough to be the first to move on this. I hope I have made my point that the term “British Isles” is confusing and ambiguous and that the BBC’s own audience find it ambiguous (as evidenced by their own comments). Further, the BBC’s own writers use it to mean what ever they happen to like it to mean. It is therefore neither accurate nor precise. So why use it? Unless you are trying to be offensive?

How could the BBC, and everyone else, avoid this mess? Simple. Avoid the term “British Isles” and use a more appropriate, less ambiguous and less offensive term to refer to the groupings that they wish to. Most of the time  this term is used, it is used inaccurately. In the case of the BBC, violating their Editorial Guidance (e.g.  section 1.2.2) and making them look like ignorant twits that don’t know the boundaries of their own country. I suggest that they adapt their style guide to reflect this, including guidance on what terms and when to use them. A paragraph added to page 39 would suffice. I suppose that is what pisses me off most about it, they don’t ever need to use the term, ever. I know I can’t find a situation where it was needed and an alternative term wasn’t easier or more accurate to use. There is always a better term that the “British Isles”.

If only the BBC would listen to its own advice in its style guide:

“Try to
avoid annoying your audience.”