Fighting Terrorism Through Language


The terrorist organization that coordinated attacks in Paris last week has alternately been called ISIS, ISIL, and IS by government and media. However, when French President Francois Hollande addressed the world, he referred to the organization as Daesh for a very good reason: language. In addition to being a transliteration of the group’s Arabic acronym meaning Islamic State, “Daesh” is a word onto itself, and can be translated as “a group of bigots who impose their will on others” and is itself a curse word. Translator Alice Guthrie explains why the group has threatened to cut out the tongues of anyone who calls them Daesh:

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.

Ian MacAllen is the author of Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American (Rowman & Littlefield, April 2022). His writing has appeared in Chicago Review of Books, Southern Review of Books, The Offing, 45th Parallel Magazine, Little Fiction, Vol 1. Brooklyn, and elsewhere. He tweets @IanMacAllen and is online at More from this author →