Britannia

Attested:  Probably first used by Pytheas in about 325 BC, whose work survives only in quotation by later authors.  It was probably then spelled with an initial P, as Πρεττανια or similar.  This was repeated by many later authors (listed here, or by R&S pp39-40), but the initial letter shifted to B, so that the Latin spelling settled down to Britannia.

Where:  the British Isles

Name origin:  The standard explanation, endlessly repeated, is that the earliest form, with initial P like modern Welsh Prydain, contains a Celtic root meaning ‘shape, form’, possibly referring to tattooed people.

Notes:  An alternative explanation, based on Greek πρυτανις ‘council president’, seems never to have been discussed.  It would imply that Pytheas saw ancient Britons using moots or deliberative assemblies similar to the Greek βουλη ‘council of elders, senate’.

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Last Edited: 20 July 2016