Queen Claims to be Head-of-State of Ireland!

According to “the official website of the British Monarchy” the queen claims to be head-of-state of Ireland.

Queen of United Kingdom (as well as Canada, Au...

Queen of United Kingdom (as well as Canada, Australia, and other Commonwealth realms) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a FAQ it claims:

“Q9. In how many countries is The Queen Head of State?

A. Including the British Isles, The Queen is Head of State in 16 Commonwealth countries. Her Majesty is head of the Commonwealth which includes 53 countries.”

Now as I have discussed here before, the most common definition of the term “British Isles” that is accepted by many, including the British Ordnance Survey,  the BBC, the British Council and the European Community Directorate of Translations , includes Ireland.

I know very well that the Queen is not head-of-state of Ireland. I don’t believe in this age of mutual respect between our islands that such an inflammatory remark would be made. However, based on the most widely accepted definition of the term “British Isles”, this is what is being claimed! Now we can take this as the definition doesn’t include Ireland, but does this not show how ambiguous and in some regards dangerous this term because of this?

Most worrying as not only is this the official site but it called “20 most asked questions”! Can people not see how confusing and misleading this is to, well, everyone, but especially those outside of the UK and Ireland who use the term widely influenced by the BBC and British Council. The British Council promotes the teaching of English widely and includes Ireland clearly in their definition of the “British Isles”, as discussed here previously.

It is clear from the use of the term in other parts of the website that they consider Ireland to be part of the “British Isles”:

“In the eighth century, smaller kingdoms in the British Isles continued to fall to more powerful kingdoms, which claimed rights over whole areas and established temporary primacies: Dalriada in Scotland, Munster and Ulster in Ireland. In England, Mercia and later Wessex came to dominate, giving rise to the start of the monarchy. “

This I hope demonstrates why the term should not be used or at least avoided. I hope that you see that when using the term you really have to think is this really what I mean? Is there not a simpler less ambiguous way of stating this? There is; she is head-of-state of the British Islands.


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.

An Open Letter to the BBC

An open letter to the BBC:

I recently gave feedback to the complaints department of the BBC about the use of the term “British Isles”. My argument was that the term is ambiguous at best and offensive at worst. As such, I suggested that the BBC should avoid using the term, as in most cases they are not using it accurately, as per their own style guide (definition on page 39).

The BBC initially informed me that the term was a “geographical designation” with no “insulting undertones” and that their audience understood its meaning. However, a simple glance at the comments left by the BBC’s audience clearly shows that they are confused about what the term really means. Further, a subsequent email from the BBC confirms that the BBC are aware that it is found to be offensive by some and the BBC’s own style guide admits that the situation surrounding the names of countries and regions is “confusing”. This is further complicated by the BBC’s writers not using the term consistently or accurately; using it to mean some changeable sub-set of groupings of islands.

This term causes offence because it is an archaic term that can be interpreted to imply that Ireland is somehow British (despite what British people maintain about its definition). However, if you used it as purely a geographical term and accurately you can avoid the vast majority of offence that can be caused by it and make your articles more accurate and less ambiguous.

Firstly, if it is a “geographical  designation” then it should be used in purely a geographical setting and not used in articles regarding politics, people or culture. When it is not used in a purely geographical setting then it implies that there is one homogeneous culture on these islands and that we all have one homogeneous view. This is clearly not the case. Further, in political and royal matters it is increasingly problematic because it implies that typically the British government or the royal family are speaking and ruling in the Republic, again this erroneous and can cause controversy.

Secondly, the term should only be used when it is actually referring to your definition in the style guide and not used when referring to sub-sets of these islands. This is where it causes most offense and is most problematic, especially because it is used to mean different things by different authors.  I notice in your style guide some very sensible advice about not alienating or using terms that would offend people from non-London regions of the UK. May I suggest that you extended this respect to your nearest neighbours in Ireland and stop using this archaic term, or at least use it accurately and in a purely geographical setting so as to stop misleading your audience. I am aware that you do not “ban” words, but insisting on the word being used strictly as in your definition would go along way.

I don’t think asking for the BBC to be accurate and precise in its language, especially when it can avoid offence, that it is aware it can cause, is too much to ask.