Saturday, June 13, 2009

Word of the Day: Brythain

For some strange reason, people keep asking me what this word means. I shall attempt not to digress too much as I dwell on its convoluted history.

The word brythain is actually cognate with the Welsh prydain, from Celtic pritani — 'painted people'. This came from the habit of the original inhabitants of the British Isles of painting themselves with various plant dyes (especially blue woad). If this etymology is true, it's probably related in parallel to the Roman term Pict for the northern 'barbarians' who painted themselves likewise. Pict, of course, is related to 'picture' — a painted thing.

Some etymologists propose that the Romans used the term Britannia as somehow related to the mythical founder of the island realm, Brutus of Troy. I think that's nonsense. It's a sort of post facto brutalisation.

The problem with the British Isles is that they are the most hospitable lands in the northwest of Europe. Britain itself, on which most of Scotland, Wales and England can be found, is the ninth largest island in the world and currently hosts about 60 million people. Over the centuries, they've been invaded by just about every tribe that migrated north and west, ran out of mainland space, and decided to cross the North Sea or the English Channel. This makes etymology hazardous and has spectacularly enriched the English language, which now seems to have about five different words (at least) for everything.

Britain itself is said to mean 'the Isle of the Blessed', and brythain therefore must mean 'man of the Blessed Isle'. In 1884, Professor Sir John Rhys introduced the word 'Brythonic' as a specific term of reference for matters related to the ancient cultures (pre-Saxon, pre-Norman, non-Roman) that inhabited the island of Britain.

At this point, it's good to get the geography sorted out. 'Britain' is the island which has Scotland (capital: Edinburgh) in the north and Cornwall at the southwestern tip, England (capital: London) in the southeast, and a lump in the west called Wales (capital: Cardiff). Great Britain is the term used to differentiate it from Brittany, the former British holdings in what is now France which were called 'Lesser Britain'. 'The British Isles' refers to all the thousands of islands in the region, including (well, that's a touchy issue for some) Ireland, the Isle of Man, the Shetlands, the Scillies, the Channel Islands, and the Orkneys.

The 'United Kingdom' is actually the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In the old days, it would have been the United Kingdom of Great Britain (under the Act of Union, 1707, in which the kingdoms of Scotland and England became politically a single unit). In 1801, Ireland was taken over by the UK, a most unhappy turn of events which was undone some time later.

It is this curious history which allows the British Isles to field more football teams than some confederations (it seems): Republic of Ireland (capital: Dublin), Northern Ireland (capital: Belfast), Wales, Scotland, and England each have their own teams.

Oh yes, one more thing about England. 'England' literally means 'land of the Angles', and for some time, it was more or less the area called 'Anglia'. Somehow, Alfred the Great managed to manipulate everyone into giving him more space, and England became larger than that. If not for old Alfred, the Pritani would probably be fielding nine soccer teams or more. Haha.

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