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What's the Difference Between Britain and England?

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Moments after Andy Murray’s victory over Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon, the New York Times went with a headline that raised some eyebrows: “After 77 Years, Murray and England Rule.” The story was expanded for the print edition, and the headline tweaked—first switching out “England” for “Britain,” then changing the second clause.

That is because—despite what many think—England and Britain aren't the same thing. The best analogy would be to call the United States the Midwest: It disenfranchises a significant proportion of the country, and risks offense. It’s a common misconception that has been going on for centuries, and it’s difficult to unravel.

Cry God for Andy, England and St George!

“Britain” was initially the term for the home of a group of Celts who inhabited modern day England and Wales (and a small part of southern Scotland) before Roman occupation. It was nothing more than that—and remained that way until 1603, when James I of England (who was also James VI of Scotland) sought to unite his two countries. He titled himself King of Great Britain, though opposition and wariness meant that Great Britain didn’t exist during his lifetime, and though subsequent kings and queens ruled both Scotland and England, the governments beneath them were separate for Scotland and England.

It took another century, and the ascension to the throne of Queen Anne in 1702 following a succession crisis, to put the wheels of union back into motion. Anne’s first speech to parliament as Queen of England explained it was “very necessary” to unite the two countries.

Teams of negotiators were drawn up, and after years of talks the Acts of Union 1707 were passed in the English and Scottish Parliaments, drawing together the two countries into the United Kingdom of Great Britain.

So what is it today?

Today, “Great Britain” refers to the entirety of the United Kingdom, save for Northern Ireland (or, if you want to think of it in terms of landmass, the British Isles minus the island of Ireland). This is why technically, the country that flies the Union flag is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and not just Great Britain. But invariably there’s slippage in the definition: When people refer to Great Britain (or just plain Britain), quite often they mean the United Kingdom.

Still with us? Well what if we told you that today most Britons drop the “Great” from Great Britain? If you ask, they’ll say they’re British, from Britain; no one fills out their passport’s nationality section to say they’re United Kingdom-ish.

But Andy Murray’s definitely not English.

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So let’s break it down: England + Scotland + Wales = Great Britain. Great Britain + Northern Ireland = the United Kingdom. Of course, just as New Yorkers and Bostonians share a friendly rivalry, so do Scottish and Englishmen and women.

In fact, the divisions can run deep between the two. Scottish national pride can rub against the natural gravitation of the seats of power, commerce and industry to the heart of England. The tension is so bad that there will be a referendum on Scottish independence in 2014—which could make the English/British/Scottish conundrum a lot easier to untangle.

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Big Questions
What is Duck Sauce?
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A plate of Chinese takeout with egg rolls and duck sauce
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We know that our favorite Chinese takeout is not really authentically Chinese, but more of an Americanized series of menu options very loosely derived from overseas inspiration. (Chinese citizens probably wouldn’t recognize chop suey or orange-glazed chicken, and fortune cookies are of Japanese origin.) It would also be unusual for "real" Chinese meals to be accompanied by a generous amount of sauce packets.

Here in the U.S., these condiments are a staple of Chinese takeout. But one in particular—“duck sauce”—doesn’t really offer a lot of information about itself. What exactly is it that we’re pouring over our egg rolls?

Smithsonian.com conducted a sauce-related investigation and made an interesting discovery, particularly if you’re not prone to sampling Chinese takeout when traveling cross-country. On the East Coast, duck sauce is similar to sweet-and-sour sauce, only fruitier; in New England, it’s brown, chunky, and served on tables; and on the West Coast, it’s almost unheard of.

While the name can describe different sauces, associating it with duck probably stems from the fact that the popular Chinese dish Peking duck is typically served with a soybean-based sauce. When dishes began to be imported to the States, the Americanization of the food involved creating a sweeter alternative using apricots that was dubbed duck sauce. (In New England, using applesauce and molasses was more common.)

But why isn’t it easily found on the West Coast? Many sauce companies are based in New York and were in operation after Chinese food had already gained a foothold in California. Attempts to expand didn’t go well, and so Chinese food aficionados will experience slightly different tastes depending on their geography. But regardless of where they are, or whether they're using the condiment as a dipping sauce for their egg rolls or a dressing for their duck, diners can rest assured that no ducks were harmed in the making of their duck sauce.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Can You Really Go Blind Staring at a Solar Eclipse?
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A total solar eclipse will cut a path of totality across the United States on August 21, and eclipse mania is gripping the country. Should the wide-eyed and unprotected hazard a peek at this rare phenomenon?

NASA doesn't advise it. The truth is, a quick glance at a solar eclipse won't leave you blind. But you're not doing your peepers any favors. As NASA explains, even when 99 percent of the sun's surface is covered, the 1 percent that sneaks out around the edges is enough to damage the rod and cone cells in your retinas. As this light and radiation flood into the eye, the retina becomes trapped in a sort of solar cooker that scorches its tissue. And because your retinas don't have any pain receptors, your eyes have no way of warning you to stop.

The good news for astronomy enthusiasts is that there are ways to safely view a solar eclipse. A pair of NASA-approved eclipse glasses will block the retina-frying rays, but sunglasses or any other kind of smoked lenses cannot. (The editors at MrEclipse.com, an eclipse watchers' fan site, put shades in the "eye suicide" category.) NASA also suggests watching the eclipse indirectly through a pinhole projector, or through binoculars or a telescope fitted with special solar filters.

While it's safe to take a quick, unfiltered peek at the sun in the brief totality of a total solar eclipse, doing so during the partial phases—when the Moon is not completely covering the Sun—is much riskier.

WOULDN'T IT BE EASIER TO JUST TELL YOUR KIDS THEY WILL GO BLIND?

NASA's website tackled this question. Their short answer: that could ruin their lives.

"A student who heeds warnings from teachers and other authorities not to view the eclipse because of the danger to vision, and learns later that other students did see it safely, may feel cheated out of the experience. Having now learned that the authority figure was wrong on one occasion, how is this student going to react when other health-related advice about drugs, alcohol, AIDS, or smoking is given[?]"

This story was originally published in 2012.

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