What’s in a Name? Words Matter in War.

daesh“This is a terrorist group and not a state. . . the term Islamic State blurs the lines between Islam, Muslims, and Islamists.” President Obama made similar remarks saying, “ISIL is not Islamic . . . and [is] certainly not a state.””

These lines are from a recent article in the Boston Globe. The first quote is from French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, explaining why the French government will no longer use ISIS, ISIL, or IS to refer to the increasingly infamous terror organization, and will instead refer to them as “Daesh,” an acronym of the group’s full name in Arabic (which is al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham if you were curious).*

But it’s just a name. Does language matter that much?

George Orwell seemed to believe that it did, once writing that “… if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” 

Some say that “The Islamic State” is simply a harmless English translation of the group’s self-designated name. And it’s true that we have a long, rich history of “translating” a group’s name into English, even when it has little to do with what they actually call themselves (when’s the last time you’ve seen a map of Europe with Belgique bordering Deutschland?).

However, we haven’t actually followed this English-translation pattern when it comes to Middle Eastern terrorist organizations. If we did, the World Trade Center would have been attacked by “The Base” (Al-Qaeda), leading to a war to depose the notorious “Students” (Taliban).

Were the English approximations of these names not “scary” enough? If so, it’s telling that throwing “Islamic” in front of “State” enabled the name to pass the “sounds frightening enough to be a terrorist organization” test.

As both the Globe article and the Orwell quotation illustrate, language has power. The more we put  “Islamic” in front of nasty things, the more the word is maligned by negative connotations in a sort of linguistic guilt-by-association. Think of the word “retarded.” It simply means “characterized by slowness,” but one cringes to hear it anymore, as it has become inextricably associated with derogatory usage.

And if that’s not reason enough for us to start using the term “Daesh,” there’s an added bonus: According to the Globe, “‘Daesh’ can also be understood as a play on words — and an insult. Depending on how it is conjugated in Arabic, it can mean anything from “to trample down and crush” to “a bigot who imposes his view on others.” Already, the group has reportedly threatened to cut out the tongues of anyone who uses the term.”

Accurate nomenclature AND a chance to irritate a group responsible for horrendous atrocities? I’m sold.

What do you think? Does the French policy make an impact? Do names even matter in the first place?

Feel free to comment below or on the blog’s Facebook page.

[*If you’re curious about pronunciation, as far as I can tell, “Daesh” seems to rhyme with “raw eggs,” — “Daw-e`sh” — but if anyone has a more accurate pronunciation, please let me know.]

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2 thoughts on “What’s in a Name? Words Matter in War.

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