[Note: This item comes from friend Shannon McElyea. Shannon’s comment:’Hopefully all nations and all media will start using the term and label Da’esh / Daesh … here is a great explanation why.’ DLH]
Decoding Daesh: Why is the new name for ISIS so hard to understand?
Arabic translator Alice Guthrie investigates ‘Daesh’, the new name for ISIS recently adopted by several world leaders because it delegitimises the group’s activities. But how can a new name undermine a terrorist organisation? And why do the English-speaking media find the name so difficult to understand?
By Alice Guthrie
Feb 19 2015
Over the last few months, there has been a concerted effort by several senior global politicians to give a new name to the group known as ISIS, or Islamic State, IS or ISIL. That new name is ‘Daesh’. If you’ve followed coverage of this attempted official linguistic sea change, you’ll have gathered that the new name, although it’s just an Arabic acronym equivalent to the English ‘ISIS’, apparently delegitimises the organisation, mocks them, and thus drives them to threaten taking violent retribution on anyone who uses it.
But why does this acronym have this power, and what’s so offensive about it? If your access to news media is only in English, you might still be none the wiser. You may have got the impression from this coverage that the exact meaning and connotations of the word cannot quite be fathomed by anyone – that this word is a nebulous drifter, never to be pinned down. Basically, the coverage seems to imply, it’s obscured by a veil, like so much else in the Arabo-Islamic world, and we can’t hope to get it spelled out for us. It’s far too Eastern and weird for that.
Well, I’m an Arabic translator, so my work revolves around pinning down and spelling out Arabic words and explaining them in English, and I’m here to let you know that there’s nothing mysterious about this new acronym: it may be from a language quite different to English, and an Eastern one at that, but trust me: it can be explained.
I’ve come across some wildly inaccurate blethering lately about the word’s significance and its signification: even if you don’t know any Arabic at all, you might have been surprised to read in your major liberal broadsheet that although this new name is a transliteration of the Arabic acronym equivalent to ISIS, there are ‘certain schools of thought’ as to what the name means, or that you are being offered analysis based on ‘rough translations’ of the words in the acronym. If you’re particularly observant, you may have asked yourself how one of the words in the Arabic acronym of ‘Islamic State’ in Iraq and Syria can also mean ‘to crush or trample underfoot’ (as a major UK broadsheet faithfully ‘explained’ recently) – perhaps pondering, over your cornflakes, which of the words is the one with this double meaning: ‘state’ or ‘Islamic’, ‘Iraq’ or ‘Syria’? And wondering why you haven’t ever heard tell of this strange phenomenon before? If you’re a linguist, you will have scoffed at repeated references to a word that seems to shift between being a noun and a verb according to how it’s ‘conjugated’, taking extravagant semiotic leaps along the way. Perhaps, getting the impression from all this that the Arabic language is such uncharted territory, you even got inspired to start learning it, and get stuck in at the East-West decoding coalface? Is this ringing any Orientalist bells? But it’s really not that complicated, and certainly not uncharted territory at all.
The main misapprehensions about the word currently circulating in our media boil down to the following list:
That daesh is an Arabic word in its own right (rather than an acronym) meaning ‘a group of bigots who impose their will on others’
That it can be ‘differently conjugated’ to mean either the phrase above or ‘to trample and crush’
That one of the words in the acronym also means ‘to trample or crush’
That it is an insult or swearword in its own right
That is has different meanings in the plural form
Read around a bit, across several UK and US broadsheets, and you will quickly spot the same misinformation being repeated almost word for word: publications are either quoting each other as supposed reliable sources on the story, with acknowledgments, or simply repeating each other’s lines without explicitly referencing them. In most cases, the explanation is not only wrong, it doesn’t actually make sense. But why all this speculation? Why so much mystery? Why are phrases like ‘rough translation’ and ‘possibly linked to this word’ being used, making the story out to be as elusive and contested as many of the political developments on the ground in Syria? Clearly none of these journalists or their researchers have accessed an Arabic/English dictionary (there are many freely searchable online) nor – even easier – contacted an arabophone, to check these basic facts.