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Decoding Daesh: Why is the new name for ISIS so hard to understand?

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Duly noted. Though using the phrase ISIS and sometimes ISIL has been going on long enough that most people will continue to use it for while, and will be confused to hear the phrase Daesh…

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.

And so if the word is basically ‘ISIS’, but in Arabic, why are the people it describes in such a fury about it? Because they hear it, quite rightly, as a challenge to their legitimacy: a dismissal of their aspirations to define Islamic practice, to be ‘a state for all Muslims’ and – crucially – as a refusal to acknowledge and address them as such. They want to be addressed as exactly what they claim to be, by people so in awe of them that they use the pompous, long and delusional name created by the group, not some funny-sounding made-up word. And here is the very simple key point that has been overlooked in all the anglophone press coverage I’ve seen: in Arabic, acronyms are not anything like as widely used as they are in English, and so arabophones are not as used to hearing them as anglophones are. Thus, the creation and use of a title that stands out as a nonsense neologism for an organisation like this one is inherently funny, disrespectful, and ultimately threatening of the organisation’s status. Khaled al-Haj Salih, the Syrian activist who coined the term back in 2013, says that initially even many of his fellow activists, resisting Daesh alongside him, were shocked by the idea of an Arabic acronym, and he had to justify it to them by referencing the tradition of acronyms being used as names by Palestinian organisations (such as Fatah). So saturated in acronyms are we in English that we struggle to imagine this, but it’s true.

All of this means that the name lends itself well to satire, and for the arabophones trying to resist Daesh, humour and satire are essential weapons in their nightmarish struggle. But the satirical weight of the word as a weapon, in the hands of the Syrian activists who have hewn it from the rock of their nightmare reality, does not just consist of the weirdness of acronyms. As well as being an acronym, it is also only one letter different from the word ‘daes داعس’ , meaning someone or something that crushes or tramples. Of course that doesn’t mean, as many articles have claimed, that ‘daesh’ is ‘another conjugation’ of the verb ‘to crush or trample’, nor that that is ‘a rough translation of one of the words in the acronym’ – it’s simply one letter different from this other word. 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 ‘shit’ – but I think it’s safe to say that no serious foreign media outlet would claim that ‘shit’ was another conjugation of the verb ‘shid’, 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 language

(click here to continue reading Decoding Daesh: Why is the new name for ISIS so hard to understand? | Free Word Centre.)

Written by Seth Anderson

November 20th, 2015 at 10:18 am

Posted in News-esque

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