- Paul Anthony Jones
(n.) a large island off the coast of northwest Europe
It’s easy to forget that place names—just like surnames, first names, months of the year, and all other proper nouns—are still only words, and as such have their own histories and etymologies.
But because place names tend to be noticeably ancient, their precise origins and meanings are often tricky to pin down. Shortfalls and inconsistencies in what little historical evidence is available mean there’s often just as much conjecture and guesswork involved as there is hard fact, and even then some names defy all attempts to explain them. Despite being one of the most famous cities in the world, for instance, no one really knows what London means. Instead, theories range from the relatively sensible (perhaps a long-forgotten Welsh word meaning something like “river-fort”, llyn-din) to the downright bizarre (perhaps a reference to Luna, the Roman goddess of the Moon).
One place name we can have a fairly good stab at explaining, however, is Britain—which apparently means ‘land of the tattooed people’.
The record of Britain we know about comes from an Ancient Greek explorer and adventurer named Pytheas of Massalia. Sometime around 325BC, Pytheas circumnavigated and explored the British Isles, probably becoming the first person in history to do so. He also travelled high enough into northern Europe to describe the Midnight Sun (probably becoming the first person to do so), crossed the Arctic Circle and spotted the outer fringes of the great northern icecap (probably becoming the first person to do so), and travelled by sea from Mediterranean Europe to the Baltic (probably becoming the first person to do so).
Pytheas’s accounts of his groundbreaking journeys were among the most celebrated geographical texts in antiquity—but unfortunately all of his original writings have long since been lost.
Everything we know about his travels now comes from a smattering of quotes, extracts and accounts that later writers and historians—including the great Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder—included in their later work. But one thing that has survived is Pytheas’s early use of the word Britain, which he recorded more than 2,300 years ago as Bretannike.
At the time of Pytheas’s visit, Britain would still have been a hodgepodge of different Celtic and pre-Roman tribes and languages. In the far north and west, however, two increasingly dissimilar branches of the ancient Celtic language family were starting to take shape: Goidelic, or Q-Celtic, in the far north and northwest (which eventually gave rise to Irish, Manx and Scots Gaelic), and Brythonic, or P-Celtic, in the west and southwest (which eventually gave us Welsh, Cornish and Breton).
The nicknames ‘P’ and ‘Q’ refer to the fact that Brythonic Celtic tended to develop a p sound where Goidelic Celtic tended to have a hard q or k sound, and vice versa. We’re dealing with impossibly ancient words here, of course, but you don’t have to look too far to find evidence that this change took place: pick up an atlas or a road map of the British Isles, and you’ll find Pentire, a peninsula on the north coast of Cornwall, and Kintyre, a peninsula in southwest Scotland. Both names literally mean ‘headland’, both derive from P-Celtic (penn) and Q-Celtic (keann) words meaning ‘head’, and both are identical, except for their initial p and k sounds.
But back to Pytheas. Based on linguistic evidence like this—and based on what little we know of Pytheas’s route—it’s thought that his Bretannike must be derived from some early Brythonic or P-Celtic word, suggesting that the people he learned it from originated somewhere around modern-day Wales or southwest England. We can only postulate what this original root word might have been, but from what we know about the Celtic languages, the consensus among etymologists and toponymists (i.e. place-name researchers) is that its closest modern descendant is probably an old Welsh word, prŷd, essentially meaning ‘form’, ‘image’, or ‘countenance’. If this is correct, then the ancient Britons would quite literally have been ‘the people of the forms’, which (it’s again presumed) is an apparent reference to their supposed fondness for war paint and tribal tattoos.
Admittedly, there are several rivalling theories here (and historians are undecided whether the Iron Age Britons tattooed each other or not), but etymologically there’s a strong argument to suggest Britain is quite literally the home of the ‘tattooed people’.
And, appropriately enough, Britain is now apparently the most tattooed nation in Europe. Everything really does come full circle.