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.





Northern Ireland


Isle of Man


Channel Islands


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




British Islands UK, Isle of Man, Channel Islands




UK England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland




Britain England, Scotland and Wales




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.