If there’s one area of knowledge Americans usually fail on when it comes to this part of the world, its geography. To this day, I can label about 10 English cities on a map and maybe one in Wales and IF YOU’RE LUCKY AND I’VE HAD 9 HOURS OF SLEEP, two in Scotland.

For most Americans (including myself before moving here), this confusion extends further. As always, I’m fine being completely honest on here, so I’m just going to throw it out there: I used to think Ireland was part of the UK, had no idea WHAT Northern Ireland even was all about or that it was an entirely different country, and would have struggled to come up with many more English cities than London.

For many Americans, London = England. Actually, for Americans, London = the entirety of the UK and most of Europe.

The sheer embarrassment of my own ignorance is only partly lessened by the number of Brits who have asked me where my own home state is on a map. It goes both ways, people.

To enlighten you or save you from making any major faux paus while on this side of the pond, let’s have a basic geography lesson.


Firstly, you’ve got the British Isles. These are the two major islands (one with Ireland and Northern Ireland, and one with England, Scotland, and Wales). The British Isles also include lots of (much) smaller islands around the main ones. Easy enough? Okay, done.


Just because Ireland is located in the British Isles means nothing. The Republic of Ireland is…Irish. A completely separate country and government.

Okay, so now we’ve got four nations left: Northern Ireland, England, Scotland, and Wales. The entirety of these four countries make up the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. But, wait. What is Great Britain?

great britain
Great Britain is the larger island, consisting of England, Scotland, and Wales. Since the creation of the UK, “Great Britain” is more of a geographical and cultural term, as the “British government” includes Northern Ireland.

However, let’s go ahead and make this slightly more complicated, SHALL WE?

Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland each have their own governments that are responsible for ‘domestic’ issues. Things like health, education, and transport would fall under their ruling. It’s similar to how a state in America would often be responsible for its internal issues while still “reporting” to the national government, but you have to remember that Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are their own entities. Yes, they are part of the UK, but, for most people, there is a certain pride that comes along with their country and their heritage that goes above and beyond the pride most people feel for their States. Unless you’re from Oregon. I feel like people in Oregon REALLY love Oregon.
To sum it up,

British isles = Ireland + United Kingdom (+ multiple small islands)
Ireland = Republic of Ireland
United Kingdom = Northern Ireland + Scotland + England + Wales
Great Britain = Scotland + England + Wales

Also, one final piece of advice: if you’re not 100% sure where someone is from, either straight out ask them or play it cool until they mention it. Calling a Scottish or Welsh or Irish or Northern Irish person “English” could easily start the next World War, or at least earn you a cold stare and unspoken judgment.