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Continental Breakfast – What continent is the UK on?

by Eva Amsen

breakfast.jpg“Welcome back to Europe – *Don’t* mention the EU!” Basil Fawlty-ed a Dutch friend upon hearing that I was moving to the UK.

Yes, the British have a reputation of not wanting to be considered part of Europe. But surely, I thought, they must think they’re on some continent. If not Europe, then which continent did they think they were on?

I did some Googling that led to the deepest, darkest, messiest corners of the web, and I found my answers: apparently, people believe, the UK is either not on any continent, or it is itself a continent.

Here are some questions people are asking online. (No links on most of these for your sanity.)
“What continent is England on?”
“On which continent is the UK?”
“Is England a European continent?”
“Is the UK on a continent?”
“Is the United Kingdom a country or a continent?”
and this one, from a concerned mother on a (British) parenting site:

“If you were asked what continent the UK was in, would you think there was something wrong with the question?”

But before I could laugh, I read further, and I suddenly saw where the confusion came from: “I would presume, the UK is in Europe, but it is an island, not a continent?”

Now I get it. People are not entirely stupid. At least not all of them. They have heard of “continental drift”, and know that continents are big parts of land, slowly moving around on the earth, drifting apart to form oceans, and bumping together to form mountain ranges. By that definition, a “continent” is a large slab of land, and Great Britain and Ireland are just bits that have fallen off their continent.

But as someone else in that thread points out, not all the bits of a continent have to be above water: “I think the continental plates are the important factors — Britain is on the European continental plate?”

Yes, that’s probably scientifically correct. It gets more confusing, though, when you add politics and convention to define a “continent” for geographical (not geological!) purposes. Turkey and Russia are both on two continents, according to my map of Europe. India is part of Asia, even though it comes from a geologically distinct plate. And how many continents are covered in the area between the Hudson Bay and Tierra del Fuego? Nobody on the internet can agree on this. Even Wikipedia gives up and just throws a bunch of maps and options at you. I learned three: North America (US and Canada), Middle America (from Mexico to the Panama Canal), and South America (everything below the canal). More often I’ve heard North America used to also include Mexico, with everything below Mexico being part of South America. But you can also refer to this entire pole to pole area as America.Europe, of course, is even more complicated. Within my own living memory, the borders of most of its countries have shifted so often that I would not be able to confidently tell you where Asia starts. I was always pretty secure about the western border of Europe, though, until I just looked at some maps and discovered that Greenland can be part of North America

Europe, of course, is even more complicated. Within my own living memory, the borders of most of its countries have shifted so often that I would not be able to confidently tell you where Asia starts. I was always pretty secure about the western border of Europe, though, until I just looked at some maps and discovered that Greenland can be part of North America depending on how you look at it. Geologists consider it part of the American continent, but politicians reason that it should be part of Europe. Are you confused yet?

But the UK, surely, is part of Europe… right?

Let’s have a cup of tea and a watercress sandwich, and check the internet again! “Here’s a great anecdote from a travel forum“.

“I was standing in line with my daughter at Disney World and met a gentleman from the U.K. and I asked what he thought about being in the E.U., He very politely let me know that the U.K. was not part of Europe”

The comments in that thread clearly illustrate how confused people are by the various distinctions between “landmass”, “continent”, “Europe”, “EU”, “economic union”, “island” and “country”. And these are travelers, who tend to know what they’re talking about when it comes to geography.

It’s a nice mix of science and politics, but in the end, yes, the UK is really part of the EU, and really part of Europe. “The continent” is just a phrase to refer to the non-island part of Europe, where they eat “continental” breakfasts. But both geologically and politically, the UK is on a continent, and it’s Europe.

There, I said it.

Please don’t deport me. To the continent. That I’m already on…

(photo from freefoto)


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Henry Gee March 9, 2010 - 8:40 AM

This well-known apocryphal headline summarises the British mindset:

Maria Hodges March 9, 2010 - 9:21 AM

Ah, you forgot the most contentious of all: the “Eurozone”. That’s the way to get the Conservative party to read Nature Network…

Eva Amsen March 9, 2010 - 10:20 AM

I tried to brush past that with “economic union”. I don’t mind not being in the Eurozone at the moment, because according to the international price tags on the clothes at H&M I’m benefiting enormously by paying for these things in pounds rather than euros.

Eva Amsen March 9, 2010 - 10:32 AM

As a sidenote, this is the second time I’ve mentioned Tierra del Fuego on my blog. For a place that I never really think about, that’s quite a feat…

Henry Gee March 9, 2010 - 11:30 AM

_That’s the way to get the Conservative party to read Nature Network_
The Conservative Party already _does_ read Nature Network.

Eva Amsen March 9, 2010 - 11:49 AM

Stop saying “Conservative Party”, all of you. Oh, now I just said it myself! Look what you did!
(Basil Fawlty: “Do NOT mention politics!”)
I try to keep politics off the blog, because as I said elsewhere, I just prefer to discuss it in person, but the whole continent issue was just too funny. Plus, geology! (geology rocks! \m/ )

Richard P. Grant March 9, 2010 - 11:55 AM

Conservative Party! Conservative Party! Conservative Party!
I thought it was simple. ‘Europe’ can refer to the geographical land mass or the political entity. Context is everything. Continental Europe is the political entity minus the islands (e.g. the British _Isles_).
But when people talk about The Continent they usually mean France.

Eva Amsen March 9, 2010 - 12:28 PM

_”Continental Europe is the political entity minus the islands”_
Why not the _geological_ entity minus the islands? That would make more sense to me.
(I kept wanting to use Iceland as example for things, but that’s a bit of a difficult political/economical situation right now. Geologically, it’s also an island in Europe, though. Would it be part of “continental Europe” to someone in the UK? Surely not?)

Richard P. Grant March 9, 2010 - 1:07 PM

In my experience CE refers more to the political one to the geographical one. ‘The Continent’ can refer to both.
Anyway, it’s very _German_ to expect consistency in this, isn’t it?

Åsa Karlström March 9, 2010 - 1:11 PM

ah Eva, it’s so funny. The Disney land experinece says it all 😉
We (Swedes) have a similar – not as obvious discussion since we are fewer and don’t have the Empire history…. (at least not to too many people, albeit ourselves 😉 ). The south of Sweden is “closer to the continent” and therefore more “continental” – as in more exotic 🙂
It must have something to do with the water barrier. Is Ireland the same? Or are Ireland part of Europe much more? (I would assume that they might be, considering that they have lots of EU things going on there…?)

Mike Fowler March 9, 2010 - 2:39 PM

Heh – I was just about to ask how the Nordic countries (except , ummm, continental Denmark [Jutland]) fit into all this, given that they’re only connected to ‘europe’ via Russia, or “the Final Countdown”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tt_ro2aerQg.
The I wondered about all those pesky Mediterranean islands and how they fit into continental europe. Or the Canaries, which are clearly closer to the African continent.
Finally, I asked myself “Is Noam Ann an island?”:http://www.facebook.com/people/Noam-Ann-Glick/680172004. Clearly a case of the globetrots.

Frank Norman March 9, 2010 - 3:58 PM

I think the answer is that in the UK we are incontinent.
When travelling in the Philippines I am often asked whether England is in the USA. They may have a point.

Stephen Curry March 9, 2010 - 4:32 PM

According to the table in Wikipedia, the UK is either in Europe or Eurasia, whichever way you want to define your landmasses. I certainly think of myself as European – though Euraisian is growing on me: a bit funkier, no?

Eva Amsen March 9, 2010 - 4:55 PM

Stephen, that reminds me of another thing I wondered while researching all this and hurting my brain: Do people from Northern Ireland say they are “British” or “Irish”? Considering it’s not part of “Great Britain”, technically. I _think_ citizens of all of the “United Kingdom” are referred to as “British” as nationality (just like they speak “English” despite not all being in “England”), but the more I think about it, the less sure I am.

Austin Elliott March 9, 2010 - 4:58 PM

How about this:
Educated Britons tend to think of themselves, on the whole, as being more-or-less Europeans (though those on the political right may be exceptions)
Less educated Britons think of “Europeans” as those funny foreigners who eat frogs legs, squid and garlic and don’t speak English. Not like us. The _Sun_ perfectly encapsulates this world view, particularly at the time of international football tournaments.
PS Be very careful about mentioning cucumber or watercress sandwiches… …you may be in danger of reviving the virtual blood-feud with the S…blogs crew. I fear mentioning said sandwiches is a bit like dripping fresh blood onto Dracula’s bones.

Austin Elliott March 9, 2010 - 5:05 PM

Eva, Stephen should probably answer the question about how Northern Irish people would describe themselves, but suffice to say it is an historically very fraught question of politics and religion, which in said part of the world are inextricably linked. I know this as my maternal grandparents came from there. (They would probably have called themselves “Irish”, BTW)
In other words, _you don’t ask._
Apologies in advance for the above to Stephen!

Stephen Curry March 9, 2010 - 5:35 PM

That is a can of worms, Eva (which I touched on here). It all depends which foot you dig with, as the saying goes. Unionists (mostly protestants) would definitely regard themselves as British, whereas Republicans (mostly catholic) would say Irish.
In practice you can choose and people born in NI can carry British or Irish passports. In the zeal of my youth, my passport was always green. Nowadays a British passport serves me well.
But my answer to the question, “British or Irish?” is usually “Northern Irish”. There you go – clear as mud.

Cath Ennis March 9, 2010 - 5:50 PM

Just don’t say “British Isles” around anyone from the Republic of Ireland… I learned that one the hard way!
And of course there’s the phenomenon of some non-Europeans (usually, but not always, North Americans) referring to “Europe” as if it were one homogeneous place with identical customs throughout. e.g. “what is it with Europeans and [some country-specific item]?”
Eva, thanks for digging into the murkier corners of the internet so we don’t have to!

Brian Derby March 9, 2010 - 5:57 PM

With due acknowledgement to Flanders and Swann
The English, the English, the English are best
I wouldn’t give tuppence for all of the rest.
The rottenest bits of these islands of ours
We’ve left in the hands of three unfriendly powers
Examine the Irishman, Welshman or Scot
You’ll find he’s a stinker, as likely as not.
The Scotsman is mean, as we’re all well aware
And bony and blotchy and covered with hair
He eats salty porridge, he works all the day
And he hasn’t got bishops to show him the way!
The English, the English, the English are best
I wouldn’t give tuppence for all of the rest.
The Irishman now our contempt is beneath
He sleeps in his boots and he lies through his teeth
He blows up policemen, or so I have heard
And blames it on Cromwell and William the Third!
The English are noble, the English are nice,
And worth any other at double the price
The Welshman’s dishonest and cheats when he can
And little and dark, more like monkey than man
He works underground with a lamp in his hat
And he sings far too loud, far too often, and flat!
And crossing the Channel, one cannot say much
Of French and the Spanish, the Danish or Dutch
The Germans are German, the Russians are red,
And the Greeks and Italians eat garlic in bed!
The English are moral, the English are good
And clever and modest and misunderstood.
And all the world over, each nation’s the same
They’ve simply no notion of playing the game
They argue with umpires, they cheer when they’ve won
And they practice beforehand which ruins the fun!
The English, the English, the English are best
So up with the English and down with the rest.
It’s not that they’re wicked or natuarally bad
It’s knowing they’re foreign that makes them so mad!

Alejandro Correa March 9, 2010 - 6:07 PM

Uf! Brian, nice but too nationalistic!

Eva Amsen March 9, 2010 - 6:48 PM

I found that (the song Brian posted) rather amusing despite being on the “not much” side of things. I guess that’s still quite positive compared to the rest!

Cath Ennis March 9, 2010 - 7:38 PM

I don’t think I’ve ever met a (genetically) English person who didn’t have some Irish, Scottish or Welsh blood somewhere along the line. I’m (genetically) half Irish, about an eighth Scottish, and the rest is English as far back as anyone can rememeber, which in our family is about four generations. Although I’m from a part of the country that changed hands between England and Scotland several times, so who knows if there’s any English in there at all.

Alejandro Correa March 9, 2010 - 7:56 PM

And I agree with you Cath think that the English isn’t a pure lineage ……the Chilean people less.

Alejandro Correa March 9, 2010 - 8:01 PM

So, I am a mixture of Basque-Catalan-Spanish-Chilean-Colombian. Is it possibe Araucanian genes have too …….

Alejandro Correa March 9, 2010 - 8:02 PM

Ah! and French yes!

Austin Elliott March 9, 2010 - 8:07 PM

Completely agree, Cath. I wrote a bit about having to explain this to folk in the US especially on Stephen’s Flags Of Our Daughters post a while back (which I’ve just been re-reading_.
PS For Eva and Stephen: we have a friend and ex-neighbour who was born and raised in Northern Ireland (and has the accent to match) but is Jewish. After one dinner party I finally managed to ask her the critical question (Stephen will guess what). I just about got away without being smacked, but it was close.

Åsa Karlström March 9, 2010 - 8:35 PM

_referring to “Europe” as if it were one homogeneous place with identical customs throughout. e.g. “what is it with Europeans and [some country-specific item]?”_
I love this one Cath. I never really answer without sounding either stupid (“well, you see I don’t really think my view is particular European but more Swedish”) or rude (“you know we Europeans don’t even speak the same language nor have the same systems, right?”).
Austin> I’m very intrigued by that story. Curious. Then I remember what my granny taught me “never talk about religion or politics if you want to keep your friends. It’s private stuff, not necessary to share all things” ^^

Austin Elliott March 9, 2010 - 9:00 PM

@Asa/Cath: My preferred code for the way some North Americans refer to “Europe” (often in a way that is not intended to be complimentary) is “Yerp”.
In fact, my personal experience was that there is nothing like living in the US (as an adult, at least) for making a Brit feel _more European._
PS For Asa: wise words from your gran, I would say. Disagreeing without falling out is an advanced skill, and furthermore it tends to require a similar skill level on both sides. And if you’re still wondering about the story, this should reveal the answer (and the question).

Stephen Curry March 9, 2010 - 9:55 PM

Åsa – I see Austin has already pointed you to the answer to that Northern Irish Jewish puzzle, which I first came across in Neil Jordan’s atmospheric thriller, Angel.

Åsa Karlström March 9, 2010 - 10:01 PM

Austin/Stephen: Thanks for pointing that out. Intriguing. I would’ve never guessed…..
it’s funny all the things we do to keep within our group and (maybe much more) “those others” outside…
And Austin, there is nothing to keep all good in your home country as moving abroad…. a whole new light. (and in my own perspective, probably it’s all rose tinted and history lovely. for me at least…)

Richard P. Grant March 9, 2010 - 10:20 PM

Fair comment about mixed race—we Brits are a mixed lot. Just like the language, in fact. Oh, and the Irish in my family is a bastard.

Alejandro Correa March 9, 2010 - 11:39 PM

_it’s funny all the things we do to keep within our group and (maybe much more) “those others” outside…_
I do feel with the imposter syndrome (See Alyssa G.)…..
Hah, hah, hah

Austin Elliott March 10, 2010 - 3:14 PM

Stephen, interested to hear we both first encountered that joke/puzzle in the same movie. I only had to wait a quarter of a century or so to try the line out, but of course good lines are worth saving up…

Stephen Curry March 10, 2010 - 8:28 PM

Why am I not surprised at that Austin? We are in danger of becoming the old fogeys around here. Yes, I first saw _Angel_ in the cinema back in ’82 when it first came out. I watched it in an old independent cinema off the Fulham Road near my College digs. But I’m struggling to remember the name…
I’m not sure Jordan has ever surpassed it, though _The Crying Game_ has a certain mournful charm.

Austin Elliott March 10, 2010 - 8:48 PM

Stephen – Yep, 100% agree with the last on Jordan’s films. They tend to be like the proverbial curate’s egg, _”Good in parts”_ – though there have been some real grade A turkeys, _We’re No Angels_ being the one that stands out for me. Pretty sure I must have seen _Angel_ at the Bristol Watershed, newly opened in 1982 and the place where us pretentious students used to like to hang out and be seen.

Eva Amsen March 10, 2010 - 9:08 PM

I approve of the turn from politics to cinema in this thread.

Austin Elliott March 10, 2010 - 9:20 PM

Well, the arts cinema was (and probably still is) a very important part of life in places like Oxford and Cambridge, and probably anywhere where students (and 20-somethings and early 30-somethings?) congregate. When I was a teenager in Oxford back in the late 70s, we had the _Penultimate Picture Palace_ (still going after a name change where it lost the “Pen”), and I was very lucky that the family home was within 200 yrds of the town’s other arts cinema, the _Phoenix._ Doubtless Cambridge has similar places.
Though the Oxford ones were good, the most glamorous of all arts cinemas was Islington’s _Screen of the Green,_ mainly because the legendary (and infamous) Sex Pistols had once played a celebrated gig there. *And* they served – gasp – _real coffee_ in the foyer! In 1978!

Stephen Curry March 10, 2010 - 11:05 PM

With a little help from Google (and Eva’s approval), I have dredged up from my memory that I saw _Angel_ at the Paris Pullmann Cinema which used to be located at 65 Drayton Gardens in South Kensington. The link below is gives a map of the location (embedding didn’t work, at least in preview). At the time, I was living in Evelyn Gardens—just to the right of the cinema in the map.
I have very fond memories of the place from 1982. Saw _Blade Runner_ there, and _The Atomic Cafe_.
Alas, it was demolished in 1983.

View Larger Map

Eva Amsen March 11, 2010 - 10:38 AM

I’ve only been to the “Arts Picture House”:http://www.picturehouses.co.uk/cinema/Arts_Picturehouse_Cambridge/ in Cambridge so far. I’m not sure what else is there? (Well, there are big cinemas, of course, but I mean whether there are other smaller ones.)
In Toronto I lived a hop and a skip away from the fantastic “Bloor Cinema”:http://bloorcinema.com/ and in Amsterdam I went to “Kriterion”:http://www.kriterion.nl/ , which is unique in that is is run by students of the University of Amsterdam, but is not a university theatre per se. Lots of community members go there as well and it feels just like any other rep cinema.

Eva Amsen March 11, 2010 - 10:45 AM

Huh, I’ve lived everywhere. i just remembered that when I was in Quebec for 4 months, I lived next door to the international rep cinema “Le Clap”:http://www.clap.qc.ca/default.html I saw Dancing in the Dark there. probably with “sous-titres Francais”

Richard Wintle March 11, 2010 - 2:43 PM

Eva – I’m pleased to hear that you learned three American Continents (although it’s much more common to read references to “Central America” than “Middle America” – “Middle America” usually means the central United States, with connotations of wholesome farming, conservative views, and abundant high-powered armaments).
I was also pleased to see that your education included Mexico in “Middle” America. I’ve been saying for years that I learned Mexico as being in Central America (along with Panama, Honduras, Costa Rica, etc.) and absolutely nobody around here believes me. Apparently it’s part of North America now – possibly as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement (spit!).

Eva Amsen March 11, 2010 - 2:56 PM

I learned the 3 continents at my Dutch school, so I literally translated “midden” to “middle”. “central” does sound better.
Yeah, all of a sudden Mexico was part of North America – when did that happen? Some time after 1989 apparently. (Or after 1985, accounting for outdatedness of school books)

Sabbi Lall March 12, 2010 - 2:12 AM

_Just don’t say “British Isles” around anyone from the Republic of Ireland… _
But Cath the Isle of Wight, the Isle of Man, the Hebrides, it’s a set of Isles? Maybe I’m missing the point your pugnacious friend from R of I was making?
I thought the Mexico change was to do with politics/NAFTA too, but I’m not sure where the divide is there.

Frank Norman March 12, 2010 - 7:11 AM

I don’t really recall my school geography lessons, but I have always thought of Mexico (inasmuch as I thought about it) as in North America. This Wikipedia “article”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Central_America suggests that mexico is part of the north american plate.
But physical geography and sociopolitical geography don’t always coincide. This is the problem with “British Isles” – a perfectly valid concept in terms of describing a collection of islands, but because “British” has such strong overtones of political hegemony, the non-English nations eschew it as a description of their nationality.

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