ISIS? ISIL? Islamic State? How About Daesh?

ISIS Fighters

It appears that American officials are starting to refer to ISIS, which the President had previously principally referred to as ISIL, by an entirely new name:

On Wednesday, John Kerry was speaking at NATO headquarters in Belgium during a meeting of the United States-led coalition against the Islamic State extremist group. During his remarks, the secretary of state made a subtle, yet noteworthy, change to the language he was using: He began referring to the Islamic State by a name they hate.

After Kerry’s first reference to the group in the speech, Kerry stopped referring to the group as ISIL (short for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) and instead began referring to them as Daesh, an acronym for the group based on the Arabic original.

Kerry has rarely used the term Daesh to refer to the Islamic State. In October, he sporadically used the phrase while talking with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry in Cairo, though he still used ISIL in most references. On Wednesday, however, Kerry referred to the group as Daesh almost exclusively - he used the term 16 times and only used ISIL twice.

Naming the Islamic State has proved a problem for many organizations since the Sunni Islamist extremist group gained traction in Iraq this year. At first, many referred to it as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or the acronym ISIS. However, due to differences over how the name should be translated from its Arabic original, the U.S. government and some others referred to them as ISIL.

The group later announced that it should simply be called the “Islamic State” – a reference to the idea that the group was breaking down state borders to form a new caliphate - and many media organizations (including The Washington Post) began to refer to them this way. That in turn led to some complications: Islamic clerics around the world expressed anger at the extremist group being used to portray all of Islam, and requested that it be called by another name (a group of British imams suggested calling it the “Un-Islamic State,” arguing that it was “neither Islamic, nor is it a state”).

In most Arabic nations, however, the group is generally referred to as Daesh. Historian and blogger Pieter van Ostaeyen wrote this year that that word was a transliteration of an Arabic word (داعش), an acronym for al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham (which is itself a transliteration of the group’s Arabic name: الدولة الإسلامية في العراق والشام). The word can be transliterated a variety of different ways: The Washington Post uses DAIISH, but DAASH, DAIISH and DAISH are also used.

Some non-Arab countries, including France, have begun using the name, too. ”I do not recommend using the term Islamic State because it blurs the lines between Islam, Muslims and Islamists,” Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters in September. “The Arabs call it ‘Daesh’ and I will be calling them the ‘Daesh cutthroats.’ ”

Swapping one acronym for another may not seem like too big a deal. But there’s an interesting detail here: According to multiple reports, the Islamic State loathes the name. There have been reports of the Islamic State threatening to cut out the tongues of anyone who used the phrase publicly, perhaps due to the word’s similarity to another Arabic word, دعس, or Das, which means to trample down or crush. The word “Daeshi” is used as an insult by anti-Islamic State groups.

So, it would appear that the U.S. Government may be on the verge of adopting a way of referring to ISIS/ISIl/IS that is deliberately insulting. At the very least, it’s an interesting and subtle form of propaganda to say the least. I’m just not sure it accomplishes anything. In any case, I don’t think I’m alone in saying that I just wish we’d all agree on one clear way to refer to them and stick to it already.

FILED UNDER: National Security, Terrorism, , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Neil Hudelson says:

    Did George H.W. Bush do the same with Saddam Hussein by calling him “Saadum” instead of “Sah-Dahm”?

    (I was just out of diapers during the Gulf War, so my memory is more than a bit hazy.)

  2. PJ says:

    I support the change to Daesh however it’s spelled.

    There’s nothing on TV with that name.

    If they only had thought of this earlier, then TV wouldn’t have had to change.

    The *** on ******** ***** wouldn’t have had to die.
    And the rogue *** ************ on ****** wouldn’t have been dismantled.

    Such suffering.

  3. Gustopher says:

    I suppose Weenieland was considered, and found wanting?

  4. Gustopher says:

    Perhaps it is time to take something from the old Transformers cartoons of the 1980s — Carbombya!

    The story has it that Casey Kasem quit in protest of that name, being of Lebanese descent and finding it to be distasteful, and this is why Cliffjumper never spoke again for the rest of the series. Cliffjumper was mostly a background character by that point anyway, though, since there were new toys.

    Beheadya is more accurate, but Carbombya has history.

  5. KM says:

    My vote was for Those A-holes but Daesh works too. As for what it accomplishes? It’s pisses them off. Good enough.

  6. gVOR08 says:

    @Neil Hudelson:

    Did George H.W. Bush do the same with Saddam Hussein by calling him “Saadum” instead of “Sah-Dahm”?

    I think that had more to do with trying to sound Texas folksy. I was way out of diapers and I remember an entertaining episode. W always pronounced “nuclear” as NUK-eh-lar. Saw him on TV once say ‘yahdah yahdah nuk-lee‘, then stop in mid-sentence for a couple seconds with his trademark deer-in-the-headlights look before he finished the sentence ‘NUK-eh-lar yahdah’. You could almost hear the wheels turning, ‘Rove told me never to say that properly, what was it I was supposed to say, oh yeah…’

  7. Pinky says:

    @gVOR08: We were talking about seasoned diplomat HW, not his son.

    Anyway, how about Douche? Mispronouncing the name they don’t like to make it a reference to unclean woman parts? Sounds like the kind of joke they’d take in stride.

  8. Tillman says:
  9. Neil Hudelson says:

    @gVOR08: @gVOR08:

    H.W. Bush, not junior. I think Bush the first didn’t hide his New England roots.

  10. Tyrell says:

    You go, John !

  11. James Pearce says:

    @Gustopher: Weenieland…

    I was thinking something goaty and coital, but Weenieland works. Five stars.

  12. Dave D says:

    We have been referring to Myanmar as Burma well after they stopped with the reference in some weird protest against the Junta. Minor seemingly meaningless naming conventions seem a staple of international diplomacy.

  13. lounsbury says:

    So, it would appear that the U.S. Government may be on the verge of adopting a way of referring to ISIS/ISIl/IS that is deliberately insulting.

    Well, first it’s the way the group is referred to in just about all Arabic language media.

    The idea it is deliberately insulting is rather a stretch linguistically, although now that the idea has gotten currency (with them as well) I suppose it is. The sound of داعش (DAESH / DAISH) really doesn’t resemble دعس very much at all (I suppose some urban Jewish inflected dialects it kinda sounds the same, but really quite the stretch) – in ordinary pronunciation. I’ve seen a number of other folk etymologies for why this is supposedly insulting (with rather weaker argument to Arabic usage). Most of it has been just so tales told to Journos with weak Arabic skills and rather too much credulity.

    DAISH’s dislike rather probably comes more simply from the fact that it does not credit them with a State status. It is not ordinary in Arabic to acronymize things to begin with and the usage of an acronym rather than calling them at least Islamic State rather implies they’re nobodies – culturally speaking.

    The logic of avoiding giving them the Islamic State title however is good, it avoids elevating them.

    DAISH is a good choice.