Nation? Country?

From the front page of the September 19th New York Times, “A British Soccer Team? What’s That? Say Scots, Welsh and Irish” (by Jeré Longman and Sarah Lyall):

LONDON — The plan seems eminently reasonable: field a soccer team to represent Britain at next year’s Olympics, which after all are being held here, the home of the modern game.

But there are several problems. For one thing, there is no such thing as a British soccer team. Instead, in a country where devotion to sports is fueled by ferocious regional and political rivalries, there are instead individual teams representing Britain’s fractious, proud and fiercely competitive constituent nations — namely England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Two things: First, the use of Britain to stand for the UK (the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland). Second, the reference to England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland as the constituent nations of Britain (a form of expression that is used throughout the article).

The first use is well-established, though it risks unclarity between reference to the island of Britain (with its accompanying off-shore islands) and reference to the UK. (The unclarity persists in references to British English.) But for the most part you can cope with the terms in context.

Nation is even more complex. England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are more than counties or regions; the official list of counties, with their names and geographical territories, changes every so often (as does the list of provinces of France), and the regions of the UK (even those widely recognized in ordinary language, like the Midlands and the North) have no political standing. But E, S, W, and N (for Northern Ireland) do; they have recognized capitals (London, Edinburgh, Cardiff, and Belfast; note that London is also the capital of the UK) — but only W has an official national anthem — and they have some degree of political autonomy (which Cornwall, at least, might like to emulate). The most common usage is to refer to E, S, W, and N as the four countries constituting the UK, with S, W, and N as “devolved states” (each with a national parliament or assembly and an administrative apparatus separate from the UK’s) and E as a “non-devolved state”.

In soccer, The four nations / countries compete separately, with separate associations, with bitter rivalries, especially between E and non-E, and with four “national” teams playing in international competitions. So the idea of an overall “national team” (Team GB) combining all four doesn’t go down well with the non-E constituencies.

But then there are the official decisions of the International Olympic Committee as to which political entities are admitted as competitors, which (like the decisions of the United Nations as to which political entities are admitted as member nations) can be independent of ordinary-language usage. Taiwan competes in the Olympics, but is not a member of the UN; the “republics” of the old USSR neither competed separately in the Olympics nor were members of the UN, but after the dissolution of the USSR, there was a transition period during which the new nations were eased into full status in both bodies; and, though the four countries of the UK are not separately members of the UN, the situation in sport(s) is more complex. From the NYT article:

Modern soccer began here in 1863. Through the influence of Britain’s far-flung empire, it spread to become the world’s most popular sport.

But Britain has not played men’s soccer in the Olympics in more than half a century, since the 1960 Rome Games, or even tried to qualify since the early 1970s. The British women have never entered a team since the Olympic tournament for women began in 1996.

While the International Olympic committee recognizes Britain as a combined team in all sports, FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, recognizes England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as separate teams. And there lies the heart of the controversy.

Soccer officials from the three smaller nations fear that merging a team for the Olympics could pave the way for FIFA to follow suit, forcing Britain’s teams to combine into one entry for soccer tournaments like the World Cup and the European Championships. There is a worry, too, that the nations would lose their individual seats on the committee that determines international soccer’s bylaws.

FIFA has given public assurances that it will still allow all four nations to compete separately apart from the Olympics, but its pledge has failed to convince everyone.

Stay tuned for further developments in the sporting world.

On the linguistic front, it seems that you can get away with referring to E, S, W, and N as nations or as countries in ordinary language, though whatever you do, somebody will probably bridle at your choice.


6 Responses to “Nation? Country?”

  1. vocalised Says:

    Great post! This is slightly off-topic, but after I recently read this paper:

    Kiely, R., D. McCrone, & F. Bechhofer. (2005) “Wither Britishness? England and Scottish people in Scotland.” Nations and Nationalism, 11(1): 65-82.

    it struck me as funny that “state identity” in the UK refers to British identity, whereas “national identity” refers to E/W/S/N identity! Of course, it’s obviously a different meaning of “state” than the one in the U.S., but I was still amused.

    This discussion (variations of which I have often) always makes me think of this video: (where ‘nation’ and ‘country’ are used interchangeably).

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Rod Williams on Facebook:

    For more confusion, I refer you to rugby’s annual Six Nations Championship, involving teams from England, Scotland, Wales, France, Italy, and Ireland — the Irish team being made up of players from both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

  3. mollymooly Says:

    In most sports where there exist separate English and Scottish teams, there is a single all-island Ireland team. The founding of many British sports predates both the partition of Ireland and the habit of playing Johnny Foreigner; the early “internationals” were “home internationals” between the “home nations”.

    A recently-inaugurated soccer tournament involving Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland is called the “Nations Cup”, prompting harrumphs from some Irish nationalists.

    On another point: Ukraine and Byelorussia both had UN seats in the Cold War.

  4. Martyn Cornell Says:

    Yet there’s the British and Irish Lions rugby union team, which has toured the Southern Hemisphere since 1888 as a united “British Isles” (and let’s not get into that argument) team.

  5. Rick Sprague Says:

    Your abbreviated notations of E, S, W, and N made me notice a surprising parallel with compass directions. Wouldn’t it be fascinating if the countries had happened to be arranged correspondingly! Sadly, there is no combination of rotation and reflection that can move Wales into the westernmost position.

  6. Ben Hemmens Says:

    The USA set itself up before the identification of states with ethnic nations became the dominant ideal in Europe. The ethnic nationalism that became popular in the 19th century had different implications for different states: unification for Germany and Italy, fragmentation for Austria and the UK. The UK as a political union was a relatively new creation. It’s parts were never equivalent units. Scotland had a very clear identity as a separate kingdom; Wales is often referred to as a principality; whether Ireland was ever a valid kingdom under the British crown we’d better not get into. Northern Ireland is alone as a non- historical entity. Nobody regards it as a country or a nation. It is referred to in the Republic simply as “The North” and in the UK, awkwardly, as a province – though the UK doesn’t have any other provinces, and the Irish province of Ulster includes the counties Donegal, Cavan, and Monaghan, which are all in the Republic.

    The unity of Ireland in rugby is based on the rugby-playing elite boys schools, which emerged as both Catholic and Protestant varieties, model led on the English public schools, in the Victorian period.

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