First of all, I'd like to dismiss any idea that Britain could come from "Brit-Ish." A great job of debunking this theory was done by Philologos in 2005:
Rabbi Samuel Silver of Boca Raton, Fla., has a short question: “Is ‘British’ related to brit?”
I take it that this question is tongue in cheek. The claim that “British” comes from the Hebrew words brit (or “covenant,” familiar to many of you in its Ashkenazic form of bris, a circumcision) and ish (“man”) so that it means “man of the covenant” has been around for a long time — 200 years, in fact. It goes back to the beginnings of the British Israelites, a movement founded in England in the early 19th century to promulgate the idea that the British people hailed from the 10 (actually nine) Lost Tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel that disappeared from history after being carried off into exile by the Assyrians in the eighth century C.E.
The British Israel movement was founded by an Englishman named Richard Brothers, who in 1800 published a book titled “Correct Account of the Invasion of England by the Saxons, Showing the English Nation To Be Descendants of the Lost Ten Tribes.”At its peak in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the movement had tens of thousands of followers. Among the many “proofs” offered by it, such as the claim that the Stone of Scone in Westminster Abbey was the very stone that served Jacob as a pillow on the night he dreamed his ladder of angels while fleeing from his brother, Esau, were a large number of supposed linguistic resemblances between English and biblical Hebrew. The British/brit ish equation was one of the foremost of these.
Of course, any beginning Hebrew student could tell you that “man of the covenant” in Hebrew is ish brit and not brit ish, but the British Israelites were never a group to be deterred by even the simplest facts...
Feel free to read the rest of his column for more explanation of why people insist on seeing patterns where the aren't any. This something I've discussed many times in Balashon, and perhaps even more in person. People frequently come up to me, knowing my interest in Hebrew etymology, and ask me if this Hebrew word is related to that English word. I certainly understand their curiosity, and even their emotional interest in finding such a bond, but in the end, we need to deal with evidence.
With all that in mind, I found a different theory about the etymology of Britain and a possible Semitic connection. I'll say from the outset that I'm skeptical of this one, but I'm not quite as ready to dismiss it out of hand.
Apparently it's been around for quite a while. Here's a summary from a geology website:
The Phoenicians, a now vanished pre-Roman civilisation in North Africa, traded directly with Cornwall. The name “Britain” comes from the Phoenician name “Baratanac”, meaning “Land of Tin”. The Greek historian Herodotus, who is the source for much of the little we know about the ancient world, describes how tin comes from the Cassiterides, ‘lands of tin’ that sat beyond Gaul (France).The fact that tin mining took place in Britain in ancient times is not under dispute. And it's not preposterous to claim that the Phoenicians sailed to Britain. The only question is whether that particular etymology is reasonable and has any evidence.
Let's look at the etymology itself. It took me some time, but I believe I have managed to dissect baratanac into two Semitic words that could give us Land of Tin.
First is barat. I think that this theory likely connects it to a cognate of the Hebrew word bar בר, which I've discussed here. Klein provides this entry, which makes it a reasonable candidate:
open field (a hapax legomenon in the Bible, occurring Job 39:4). [cp. BAram. בָּרָא, JAram. בָּרָא, בַּר (= open field), Syr. בָּרָא (= open field), Aram.–Syr. בּוּר (= to lie uncultivated), Arab. barr (= open country, inland, continent), Akka. barru, bāru (= open country).]
And what about anac? This has a cognate in the Hebrew anakh אנך, found in Amos 7:7-8. While many translate it there as "lead" (or the synonymous "plumb"), there's good evidence that "tin" is a better translation. For example, there already is a Hebrew word for lead - oferet עופרת. And in the Akkadian cognate annaku, it clearly means "tin."
So it looks nice. Does it hold water? Most people say no (including a comment accepted by that geology website above). The most common etymology says it comes from a word meaning "tattooed people." Here's the Online Etymology Dictionary for Briton:
c. 1200, "a Celtic native of the British Isles," from Anglo-French Bretun, from Latin Brittonem (nominative Britto, misspelled Brito in MSS) "a member of the tribe of the Britons," from *Britt-os, the Celtic name of the Celtic inhabitants of Britain and southern Scotland before the 5c. Anglo-Saxon invasion drove them into Wales, Cornwall, and a few other corners. In 4c. B.C.E. Greek they are recorded as Prittanoi, which is said to mean "tattooed people."In response, those who claim a Phoenician connection point out that tattoos weren't unique to Britain at that time. And they provide other sources of evidence against other counter-claims. Read here and here for more extensive discussion.
Where am I at the end of all of this? Unconvinced. Maybe that's a sign of my lack of knowledge - I admit that I haven't researched this as extensively as a confident conclusion would demand. But I think it's also due to a feeling that many on both sides have an interest in a particular outcome. There are those that wanted to prove a connection between Britain and the biblical lands for religious reasons. Others rejected any possibility of such a connection (even if the etymology itself didn't hold up) for their own reasons, not all of which are purely academic.
But actually, being unconvinced is fine. It means that people will continue to study this question (and others), and through that effort come up with unforeseen discoveries. As a lover of language, I couldn't ask for anything more.