I think I understand the main reasons why British people often refer to “Europe” as if the UK isn’t in it. The UK, after all, has a land border with only one other European country, and that’s a country that used to be part of the United Kingdom and doesn’t border anywhere else. And Great Britain, where most British people live, has no land borders with anywhere (unless you count the channel tunnel as constituting a land link with France). So we’re physically a bit separate from the rest of Europe. Then there’s the language difference; linguistically we have more in common with countries like the USA and New Zealand than with other European countries apart from Ireland (which, again, used to be part of the UK). And, because linguistic variation is a very good source of markers of identity, we tend to make the assumption that “more in common linguistically” = “more in common in general”.

This doesn’t always work, however. While the UK has certain things in common with the USA and Australia, it is more like other European countries in other respects; and this is exactly what you’d expect from its history and geographical position. The US, moreover, has certain ties with other European countries that it doesn’t have with the UK. In any case, it’s silly to imply that the UK isn’t in Europe. Geographically, the UK is in Europe. Politically, it’s a member state of the European Union (in this respect it’s more European than Norway and Switzerland). Culturally it’s European (though it’s worth adding that, culturally, Australia and the Americas are more European than anything else).

This is pretty obvious, and not the main point of my post. The main point is this: in spite of the above, there are occasions when we do want to talk about the rest of Europe, excluding the UK. What term should we use? “Europe” is misleading. “The Continent” is perhaps better, and has been used conventionally in this way for a while; while it is potentially ambiguous (the word continent is used to refer to both continuous landmasses and continuous landmasses plus nearby islands, especially if those islands are part of the same continental shelf), it’s less likely—owing to its conventional use—to be misinterpreted in the same way as “Europe”. On the other hand, it doesn’t work very well unless the context is obvious, and it does tend to imply that Ireland is also being excluded (along with a few other places on islands). So this leads me to two questions:

  1. When people refer to “Europe” or “The Continent”, intending to exclude the UK, do they also on the whole intend to exclude the Republic of Ireland? In this usage, do “Europe” and “The Continent” exclude different things?
  2. Is there a better word? Should we just stop distinguishing between “Britain and the Continent” and replace it with “Britain and the rest of Europe”, or something better?

1 Comment

Filed under Language, Thoughts and rants

One response to “Europe

  1. I'd usually say "the continent" or "mainland Europe". I'm not saying this is what most Irish people would say, but I think we are a bit less Euroskeptic than the UK appears to be. In fact I think I've mostly heard British people use the term "Europe" to exclude the UK.

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