What’s In A Name? Why France, The UK, Russia, And Others Are Replacing ‘ISIS’ With ‘Daesh’

The sudden shift of leaders around the world referring to the self-described “Islamic State” as “Daesh” instead of ISIL or ISIS has left a lot of people confused. Since Daesh and ISIS mean essentially the same thing, the change seems, at first glance, to create a lot of confusion for no real reason. So what’s in a name?

While it may be true that a terrorist organization by any other name would smell as sour, this is one case where quirks of language and culture result in two names meaning basically the same thing while having drastically different interpretations.

If you look at the names ISIS and Daesh from a purely literal standpoint, they are both acronyms. ISIS stands for Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which is essentially the same as ISIL, which stands for Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. In that same vein, Daesh is derived from the Arabic “al-Dowla al-Islaamiyya fii-il-Iraq wa-ash-Shaam,” which can be literally translated as “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.”

So when UK Prime Minister David Cameron switched from ISIS to Daesh, it left a lot of people scratching their heads.

President Francois Hollande of France, President Obama, and numerous other leaders in the western world have also adopted the name Daesh, to similar confusion. And while Russia is the latest to jump on the bandwagon, with news organizations in the country receiving instructions to ditch the name Islamic State in coverage, President Putin has been slower to make the change. According to the Moscow Times, Putin dumped the Islamic State name in a recent press conference but referred to the organization only as terrorists, rather than Daesh, which few Russians were familiar with at the time.

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President Hollande and President Obama have both used the name Daesh instead of Islamic State. [Photo by Pool / Getty images]

The change is coming in Russia too, though. The Moscow Times reports that following a memo instructing news organizations to use Daesh instead of Islamic State, a search of the state-run RIA Novosti wire service revealed 390 uses of Daesh in just one week, versus only 45 in the previous year.

The reason that Putin, Obama, Hollande, Cameron, and so many others are all on the same page of an issue that seems like pure semantics is really twofold. The first reason that name Daesh is replacing ISIS is due to the fact that the name “Islamic State” effectively legitimizes a terrorist organization that is not actually a state. The other is that Daesh really doesn’t like to be called Daesh.

If that seems confusing due to the fact that Daesh and ISIL have the exact same definition, it really comes down to the fact that while languages like English and French, which are based on the Latin alphabet, use abbreviations pretty widely, Latin-Arabic languages don’t, according to the Independent.

Arabic-English translator Alice Guthrie wrote on the subject earlier this year, saying that the name Daesh “stands out as a nonsense neologism for an organisation like this one is inherently funny, disrespectful, and ultimately threatening of the organisation’s status.”

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David Cameron and Vladimir Putin have both stopped using the term Islamic State, although Putin has simply referred to the group as "terrorists" rather than using the name Daesh. [Photo by Chris McGrath / Getty Images]

Another reason that Daesh doesn’t like the name Daesh is that it is very close in spelling to an actual Arabic word. The word “daes” means “to trample or crush something underfoot,” according to the Independent, and carries a connotation of humiliation and a lack of dignity.

Guthrie also wrote on how an anglophone may better understand the context of Daesh and daes.

“Imagine if the acronym of ‘Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’ spelt out ‘S.H.I.D’ in English: activists and critics would certainly seize the opportunity to refer to the organisation as ‘sh*t’ – but I think it’s safe to say that no serious foreign media outlet would claim that ‘sh*t’ was another conjugation of the verb ‘sh*d’, nor a rough translation of it. Of course, that analogy is an unfair one, given the hegemonic global linguistic position of English, not to mention the heightened currency of scatological words; but there is a serious point to be made here about the anglophone media’s tendency to give up before it’s begun understanding non-European languages.”

How much does Daesh hate being called Daesh, though?

According to the Washington Post, terrorists have threatened to cut out the tongues of people caught using the term “Daesh” in public.

Early this year, the Telegraph quoted Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot as saying, “Daesh hates being referred to by this term, and what they don’t like has an instinctive appeal to me.”

So what really is in a name? It would seem that world leaders are starting to catch on to the fact that, when it comes to Daesh, the answer is a whole lot.

[Photo by AP Photo/Bilal Fawzi, File]