Every now and again some politician, usually of the right, huffs and puffs about putting the "Great" back into "Great Britain," when,of course, in either of its true senses, it has never gone missing.
The two explanations for the "great" that I know of are:
- to distinguish us from the eastern region of France, Brittany: hence Bretagne (them) and Grande Bretagne (us)
- to distinguish between our main island, Britain, and the main island plus all the smaller islands around (such as Anglesey, the Isle of Wight, Isle of Arran, Orkney, the Shetlands and many more,) which make up Great Britain.
David Cameron's riposte to the alleged Russian slur contains both truths and exaggerations. He pointed out that "our island has helped to clear the European continent of fascism." Well yes. But in that struggle Russia lost 26 600 000 of its citizens, compared with the UK's 365 000 (and France's 580 000 and of the USA's 340 000) so Mr Putin is unlikely to be impressed. I make this point not to belittle the scarifies of the other allies, but just to put matters into perspective.
Cameron also claimed that "we" have invented "most of the things worth inventing (I wonder what he has in mind? penicillin, the jet engine, television? One has to tread carefully in this area: France for example not only has its own "discoverer of oxygen" to rival Joseph Priestly, fellow native of the same town as I and educated at the same school, but also its own inventor of the steam engine.)
Cameron is probably on stronger ground with respect to Great Britain's contribution to sport ["(we) invented every sport currently played around the world"], art , music and literature, but, again we have to be careful about that last one, since a lot of the great writers in English (Swift, Wilde, Shaw, for example) were Irish. And Ireland firmly excludes itself from Great Britain. (Hence"the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.")
But although the above make interesting conversation topics, rather like picking members for an all-time greatest cricket XI, I have no desire to live in a country with is politically "great," "punches above its weight." or has more than its share of "soft power." I'm happy to settle for a country with is modestly competent, whose citizens enjoy a high co-efficient of contentment, and whose leaders work harmoniously with our neighbours to promote similar benefits for the rest of the world.