Calling things by their name is important, including places. That’s why it’s more than convenient to know the difference between Great Britain, the United Kingdom and the British Isles. We can even extend it to England as well. All of them are different elements, although we usually have to listen or read to refer by one of these names to an entity that is not really that one. We can go from bigger to smaller:
The British Isles is a concept of physical geography. It refers only and exclusively to the islands in which as we will see there are several countries. Thus, we find two main islands: Great Britain and Ireland, plus a set of much smaller islands, many of which have an autonomous political entity -like the Isle of Man-.
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN GREAT BRITAIN, THE UNITED KINGDOM AND THE BRITISH ISLES?
The United Kingdom is already a political concept. To be perfectly correct, the full name is United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, although it is shortened for obvious reasons. As its very name indicates, it encompasses the existing political entities on the Isle of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which is located on the Isle of Ireland. In total, the entities that make up the United Kingdom are four: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Great Britain, as it may have been reduced, is the British island that comprises three of the four political entities of the United Kingdom: England, Scotland and Wales.
England, finally, is a kingdom within the United Kingdom, the central and hegemonic one in history, and which was coupling other territories and kingdoms. Today it has no international entity, and is simply subsumed within the United Kingdom.
Its confusion and misuse usually comes as much by the ignorance of the nuances that differentiate an entity from another as by some popular references that have been perpetuated, making frequent to call to one of these categories by the name of another. It is usual, for example, to refer to Elizabeth II as Queen of England.
Although it is correct -she is Queen of England-, her specific title is Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and its other Kingdoms and Territories. Because she is also Queen of Canada or Australia. Another example that generates confusion is soccer: as there is no British soccer league, each political entity -England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland- plays with its own, and this is also transferred to the sports teams, where it is played separately -not so in the Olympic Games, where the United Kingdom team competes.