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

  • By Alice Guthrie
  • 19th February 2015
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Arabic translator Alice Guthrie investigates 'Daesh', the name for ISIS adopted by several world leaders. But how can a name undermine a terrorist organisation? And why do the English-speaking media find the name so difficult to understand?

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.

Linguistic Misunderstandings

It’s really not that complicated, and certainly not uncharted territory at all.

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.

Arabic Acronyms as Activism

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.

So what does Daesh really mean? Well, D.A.E.SH is a transliteration of the Arabic acronym formed of the same words that make up I.S.I.S in English: ‘Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’, or ‘لدولة الإسلامية في العراق والشام’ (‘al-dowla al-islaamiyya fii-il-i’raaq wa-ash-shaam’). That’s the full name chosen by the organisation, and – when used in full – it’s definitely how they want to be referred to. In Arabic, just like in English, that phrase consists of six words, four of which make it into the acronym (‘in’ and ‘and’ are omitted) : ‘دولة dowla’ (state) + ‘إسلامية islaamiyya’ (Islamic) + ‘عراق i’raaq’ (Iraq) + ‘شام shaam’. That last word, ‘shaam’, is variously used in Arabic to denote Damascus (in Syrian dialect) ‘Greater Syria’ / the Levant, or Syria – hence the US-preferred acronym ISIL, with the L standing for Levant. In Arabic there is a single letter for the sound ‘sh’, hence our transliteration of the acronym having five letters, not four. And the vowel which begins the word ‘islaamiyya’ becomes an ‘a’ sound when differently positioned in a word, hence the acronym being pronounced ‘da’ish’ when written in Arabic, and the ‘a’ coming over into our transliteration of the acronym. Of course the amazing Arabic letter ‘ع’ which begins the word for ‘Iraq’ is unpronounceable to an anglophone, and can’t be written in Latin letters, hence the use of an ‘e’ (or occasionally an ’e) in the transliteration.

Still with me? Nothing mysterious there – or nothing that anyone who speaks Arabic wouldn’t be able to explain. It’s not a previously existing word in its own right. It does indeed now mean ‘tyrannical, despotic, murdering fundamentalists who claim to be Islamic and claim to be a state’ but only as a result of how it sounds (more on that in a minute) and as a result of the associations that quickly attach to a neologism, in the same way that they have attached to the word ISIS. So it’s not based on any previous – or mysterious, or quasi-mystical Eastern – meaning.

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.

Satire and Made-up Monsters

The use of this word is part of a multi-pronged, diverse range of efforts by Arabs and Muslims to reject the terrorists’ linguistic posturing, their pseudo-classical use of Arabic, their claims to Quranic authority and an absolute foundation in sacred scripture, as reflected in their pompous name.

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 languages.

And obviously understanding things outside of English, and explaining them to each other via our (social)media hive mind is hugely important on many levels: in the broadest sense, it allows us to attempt to take our place as global citizens, and feeds our connection to other humans on planet Earth. Sadly, the story of the word ‘Daesh’ is neither the only nor even the worst example of anglophone media failing us in this regard. But there’s something specifically important in this particular story which is being overlooked as a result of all the lazy journalism around it: the use of this word is part of a multi-pronged, diverse range of efforts by Arabs and Muslims to reject the terrorists’ linguistic posturing, their pseudo-classical use of Arabic, their claims to Quranic authority and an absolute foundation in sacred scripture, as reflected in their pompous name. This ridiculous claim has of course been masterfully and witheringly deconstructed at the Islamic level, but at the secular level, satire is a crucial weapon in the fight against these maniacs: there is a fertile tradition of Syrian satire as not only defiance but coping strategy, and which has been quite under-reported. In satirical Arabic media (and conversation) various diminutives of the word have also gone viral – elegantly diminishing their subject, belittling them, patronising and relegating them to a zone beyond any formal naming in a single sweep.

‘If an organisation wants to call itself ‘the light’, but in fact they are ‘the darkness’, would you comply and call them ‘the light’?’

Whether the word Daesh is insulting to its subject because it sounds ridiculous, or because it actually sounds sinister, depends slightly on who you ask. Some Syrians I’ve talked to rate the satirical value of the word very highly; for others, such as al-Haj Salih himself, however, the main weight of the word is not around humour, but around two very serious points he and others make. First of these is that both the shape of the word and the combination of letters in it are redolent of words from al-jahaliyya, the pre-Islamic dark ages or ‘age of ignorance’ that – as well as being a time rich in poetry and narrative heritage – has huge connotations of hideous barbarity in the popular imagination, being the realm of jinns and monsters and evil spirits and marauding freaks. This has also been overlooked in anglophone coverage, or been confused with an idea of the word having a previous set meaning in and of itself: as we know, it doesn’t. But given the connotations of this type of word, it sounds (to many an arabophone ear) very clearly like it must denote some crazed, bloodthirsty avatar belching back out from the guts of history. As al-Haj Salih very gently and firmly expresses to me by phone when I interview him for this piece, ‘If an organisation wants to call itself ‘the light’, but in fact they are ‘the darkness’, would you comply and call them ‘the light’?’ The second, and equally important, point that al-Haj Salih stresses to me is another take on why a neologism is insulting: it’s an obviously fictitious name, for an obviously fictional concept. Once again, the movement’s claim to legitimacy as a state and to rule is being rejected as nonsense, reflected in a fabricated nonsense name for them.

So the insult picked up on by Daesh is not just that the name makes them sound little, silly, and powerless, but that it implies they are monsters, and that they are made-up.

Originally hailing from the city of Raqqa, Daesh’s current Syrian headquarters, al-Haj Salih says his main goal in making a new name for Daesh was to avoid people getting used to referring to a tyrannical and despotic movement as a ‘state’.

All of this is why some Syrian activists therefore see it as so important that use of the word ‘Daesh’ spreads, and have been working hard to make that happen – so effectively in fact, as we know, that the word has been taken on by several global heads of state and their associated media, who have a limited grasp of the specifics behind the term. Originally hailing from the city of Raqqa, Daesh’s current Syrian headquarters, al-Haj Salih says his main goal in making a new name for Daesh was to avoid people getting used to referring to a tyrannical and despotic movement as a ‘state’. Although he regretted his efforts when the word was used by Assad, and although he was the victim of death threats and assassination attempts in Raqqa (he is now based abroad), on the whole he has been pleased to see the word widely adopted by the Arabic media since summer 2013. In terms of its use by global heads of state and media, he feels that this is only natural, and right, as ‘The people who suffer most at the hands of Daesh should decide what they are called’.

A Peculiarly Anglophone Problem?

There is surely an interesting parallel between the refusal to use the name Daesh prefer, and our anglophone media’s misreading of the word itself – every article that recycles the same confused notions about the word denies the concrete meaning of Arabic, and relegates it to being a fluid and shifting language, inherently unintelligible.

It was noted in the Arabic press that the Spanish Secretary of State for Security, Francisco Martínez, correctly explained the link between the words ‘daesh’ and ‘daes’ in November when he made a speech requesting that Spanish media adopt the new term, and it’s easy enough to find that explanation in the mainstream Spanish press. Although the French media is not entirely free of confusion around the word’s meaning and origins – with some press articles clearly based on the same misreading of one or two sources as their anglophone counterparts are, or throwing in bizarre new angles such as that ‘Daesh’ is pejorative ‘in Lebanon’  – the crucial difference is that a quick search reveals articles in major French broadsheets that explain it without any problems. If other dominant European languages can get it right in their media, why can’t the anglophone media manage this little linguistic research task? Do we really live up to our stereotype of monolingual insularity this much, even at major broadsheet fact-checking level?

This cannot fail to raise questions about the attitude to ‘them’ all this might reflect: is there something uniquely challenging for our anglophone media about Arabs and Muslims?

It seems there might actually be a systemic unwillingness to explain, on the part of the mainstream anglophone media – or, at best, an assumption that these things will not be explicable. How else can one interpret this total disregard that has been shown for the easy research avenues available to anyone setting out to investigate the story of a name? There is a vast community of bilingual arabophone people in the anglophone world, not to mention all the academics and people like me with a good acquired command of Arabic, very easily found and contacted. Even if that somehow proved too difficult, what about all the resourceful tech-savvy young researchers capable of, well, copy-pasting words into an online dictionary? More worryingly, this cannot fail to raise questions about the attitude to ‘them’ all this might reflect: is there something uniquely challenging for our anglophone media about Arabs and Muslims? Would we accept this kind of journalistic linguistic fog about, say, Greece? Have you heard that Syriza is a ‘rough translation’ of a Greek verb meaning ‘to wrest back power from a neoliberal global economic conspiracy of elite cronyism and structural inequality, and start a programme of radical resource redistribution and social justice, while wondering whether you will soon be ousted by a CIA-sponsored coup’? Well, just take my word for it, it is.

Alice Guthrie is a freelance literary and media translator, writer, editor and researcher. She is a former Translator in Residence at Free Word.

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  • Michael Clarke

    I just wanted to say thank you for this comprehensive and excellent article of explanation. It is impossible to understand the meaning and relevance of any event without the full facts, together with help to adequately comprehend those facts; something that has escaped our mainstream media for many years.

  • Chris

    Thank you.
    Great explanation, and unfortunately accurate analysis of anglophone media’s way of reporting the ‘middle east.’

  • Gerry Lavell

    Get to the point. I want to know why Daesh is derogatory. I don’t want to learn to speak Arabic.

  • Stan Karber

    Thank you, Ms. Guthrie. I am now clear on why the jihadis dislike the term daesh.

  • Jan van der Schaar

    Great article! Especially references to pre-islamic connotations. “Belching out the back of the guts of history” indeed…Just when the Arab Spring offered hope for the better, here comes Daesh with its Hieronymus Bosch’ type horrors.

  • Ron Fowlie


    Many thanks for this comprehensive explanation. Tasmina Ahmed Sheik exhorts us to us the term in her piece today in The National newspaper.

    I felt that she should perhaps have included some explanation of the word’s origins and meaning, but as she did not, perhaps her intention was for us to go looking for an article such as yours which gives a full and detailed reasoning far beyond the space available in her column.

    I spent two years in Saudi Arabia in the early 70’s, and although not an Arabic speaker, I still have an inherent desire to ‘learn’ new words and their pronunciation.


  • Joe NORTON

    Thank you for this clear exposition of the intricacies of Arabic. It was sparked by an article in The Times in which the BBC were justifying their refusal to use the acronym DAESH which The Tines had juxtapositioned with a photo of one of the victims of Sousse coming home in a coffin. See The Times Thursday, 2 July 2014

  • Thanks for all this great info! I’ve been trying to weed my way through the misinformation on this word and your essay cleared everything up. Just wanted to say thanks because it was really annoying me how unsure all other media have been while addressing such a simple concept.

  • Brad Sulc

    Very informative- well researched by miss guthrie. Finally something intelligent on the subject!!

  • Thanks so much for clarifying this. I have been trying to find the answer for a while. As you outlined, there is an absurd amount of confusion among other outlets when addressing this simple question. Also, this was well-written, well-researched, and witty. Looking forward to seeing the rest of the site.

  • Ann

    Thank you for this very interesting article. One question: how is DAESH pronounced? I have read several different opinions on the correct way to pronounce it in English.

  • david singer

    You state:

    ” D.A.E.SH is a transliteration of the Arabic acronym formed of the same words that make up I.S.I.S in English: ‘Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’, or ‘لدولة الإسلامية في العراق والشام’ (‘al-dowla al-islaamiyya fii-il-i’raaq wa-ash-shaam’). That’s the full name chosen by the organisation, and – when used in full – it’s definitely how they want to be referred to”

    You are incorrect – it is not the full name chosen by the organisation – as the following English version of the declaration by Islamic State makes clear:

    “Accordingly, the “Iraq and Shām” in the name of the Islamic State is henceforth removed from all official deliberations and communications, and the official name is the Islamic State from the date of this declaration.”

    Care to comment?

  • Altogether brilliant! Thank you very much.

  • Terry Benson-Carpet

    Summary. Daesh is a a loose acronym of ‘Islamic State for Syria and the Levant’. Acronymns are rare in Arabic so it is vaguely insulting for this reason. It stops ISIS styling themselves as a state.The word daesh brings to mind monsters in stores from pre-Islamic times. The word Daesh sounds similar to the word Daes which means someone/something that tramples and crushes.

  • Gryfer

    Thanks for this. Knowledge is our best asset against this organization right now. I learned something today — so thank you.

  • dave

    thank you

  • Alan

    Excellent article on this topic. Best, most thorough explanation I read. Now I know this word does have power, or rather the ability to remove power from Daesh. I never thought IS was a good acronym to use. Thank You.

  • Don

    This definition by Alice Gurhrie repeatedly nearly explains what DAESH means but never quite gets there. For pages I read on and on hoping for enlightenment but Alice should have started her article by stating that there is no acronym for DAESH and how it was arrived at by the French with rational.

  • I think that the headcutters in Isis or Daesh , or whatever they are, would be very surprised to learn that they’re not really Muslim. Perhaps the acronym stands for Christian or Buddhist state of Iraq and Syria.

  • David Shaw

    Thank you. This makes it much more clear. Beautifully explained; clearly expressed.

  • Good get, Alice. Language, like history, is a two way street. Sometimes the objective is to illuminate, sometimes the goal is to obscure, a kind of rhetorical burka if you will. The contortions about what to call the Islamic State are driven by fear, cowardice, and denial. ISIS had to go because the acronym contained “Iraq and “Syria,” two foreign policy flubs we would like to forget. Then ISIL had to go because most folks inside the Beltway thought the “Levant” was a hookah bar in Georgetown. Now we have “Daesh,” an ambiguous and puerile attempt not to recognize, or mock, successful irridentist Islam. Truth is al Baghadadi is having a better year than Obama or Cameron. Alas, truth is a b–ch. She doesn’t care whose feelings get hurt.

  • Ann

    Hello, great article. What is the proper
    English pronunciation of daesh?
    Thank you.

  • Scott

    Very interesting, thanks

  • gregorylent

    thanks for the insight

    p[lease don’t take this the wrong way, i mean it as a friend might .. you use too many words, for too few thoughts .. this should have been much shorter



  • Helen Paton

    The tone of this article assumes that everyone but you is a moron. While some readers of tabloids believe everything they read, most of us do actually multi-source information, thus my commenting on your extremely rude & imperiously worded rant.

    Congratulations on your career as a translator. Perhaps you would be taken more seriously if you learned a little diplomacy.

  • Steven Wyatt

    Many thanks for this excellent and illuminating piece. I was confused about the term Daesh but you have explained it very well. Perhaps the attitude in the anglophone media reflects the hegemony of English as “the” international language, which produces a rather arrogant, cavalier laziness towards other tongues. Anyway, thanks again.

  • Alex Broussard

    Wonderful article, thank you.

  • Angel

    All I wanted was to know how to pronounce the word in English. Your explanation was certainly complete. But I still cannot pronounce the word in English. It might’ve been better to just do a short video with you pronouncing the word so us uneducated English-speaking people could pronounce it correctly.



  • David Camm

    Well done Alice, it’s the most comprehensive explanation I have read, even a dumb Daeshi could find it apt enough to understand it.

  • David Camm

    Hmmm it is a shame that there is no way to share this story to any social media?

  • I just tweeted it. Amazingly great article. Thank you, Ms. Guthrie.

  • Jake Elwood

    Thank you, I just read a BBC report stating DAESH is a perjiorative term, but offered no explaination as to why. Now finally some light has been shed on this confusion and the wide range of reports about the name. Thank you also for explaining both in depth and in length, the details of the differences between Arabic and western languages – particularly pertaining to acronyms – was very helpful.

  • Tom

    A wonderful and entirely legitimate article, as most are saying. Thank you for the in-depth academic insight and polysyllabism. Some of us like to read stuff like this.

  • tombinitaly

    Would some kind editor *please* take a blue pencil to this article and reorder it into something other than a stream-of-consciousness spate?

  • Cranky Arab Physicist

    This is really off on a number of levels.

    First, even if we granted that political neologisms are more common in English than in Arabic (which I can tentatively agree to speaking both, but I’ve never really counted so I couldn’t rigorously confirm it, and I doubt the author can either) it’s quite simply ludicrous to suggest that neologisms are inherently funny and disrespectful to any Arab political organization. Two (rather obvious and famous) names come to mind here : Fata7 and 7amas. The relevant difference is that Da3esh was not invented by the organization that it designates, and there is likely something to make of that, but obviously the fact that it is an acronym is not in and of itself insulting or delegitimizing.

    Second, considering that Da3esh sounds like a pre-islamic word is probably something that is only relevant to specialists of the Arabic language specializing in the pre-islamic period. The rest of us (or at least myself) haven’t really noticed that apparently you can tell a word is pre-islamic by the way it sounds, which incidentally stands in sharp contrast to another point she makes : that Da3esh actually sounds a lot like other (modern) Arabic words.

    Third, to present “Da3esh is not a state” as some sort of desirable ideological conclusion is a thinly veiled form of state worship : “States can’t be horrible, Da3esh is horrible, ipso facto Da3esh is not a state”. A lot of what they’re doing, from the ethnic cleansing to a nostalgic mythologization of the past, is very much in line with modern nation state building, and can be considered an accelerated form of the birth of a new nation state. It will not do to white wash our own histories and recoil at this behavior with self righteous declarations that violently imposed cultural supremacism and rigidly enforced social norms are “not what nation states are about”. That’s exactly what they’re about.

    Fourth, for an article that name drops Orientalism, it is particularly short sighted to ignore the mother of all Orientalist tropes that is Westerners using Arabic words when perfectly good translations exist : “Allah” instead of “God”, “Jihad” instead of “Effort”, and “Daesh” instead of “ISIS”. I see no reason to interpret the last one differently than the first two. Beyond the obvious intent of othering, its functional role is to grant a veneer of expertise to an otherwise ignorant world view (“see how I am knowledgeable of the savage’s native tongue”). If anything it’s worse than the first two, in that using Da3esh also grants an air of solidarity despite being a politically non-committal term : you can use it while arguing for an end to Western involvement in the Syrian civil war, and you can use it while arguing to bomb Syria. Either way it’s a pretend show of solidarity which you can use to soothe that sexy white guilt you love to show off.

    I am more than confident brushing off the whole question as mainstream Western commentators doing what they love to do : staying in a politics free ideological comfort zone where we pretend that “a war of words” half a world away will bring ISIS down. What to call ISIS is, as many other questions like “Is ISIS Islamic ?”, a distraction meant to avoid at all costs a serious discussion of foreign policy. Unless the suggested name change is from “ISIS” to “Da3esh and I will take concrete steps to stop my country from selling massive amounts of weaponry to Saudi Arabia”, I’d rather people simply call it by the acronym they can both pronounce and understand.

  • Mark Jaeger

    Thank you! I thought it was a great term, with an important meaning, and it frustrating to me when the mainstream media avoided its meaning by simply saying it was an acronym. I suspect that in America particularly, religious journalists were uncomfortable talking about ‘a group of [religious] bigots who impose their will on others’, since they might fit that description themselves, or were afraid of being accused of undermining their own religious authorities. I think it’s important to undermine Taliban type thinking in our own countries as well.

  • Facepalmed

    Great article, thank you! Some of the commentators here complaining that the article is longer than three simple sentences provide classic examples of the boorish and arrogant laziness that plagues a vocal minority of monolingual English speakers.

  • Glenn Thomas

    AND Secretary of State (US) John Kerry says “DASH” as in ‘Mrs. Dash” herb mix.???
    Way to go John, who served in VietNam.

  • trivialis


    The group may have declared the shortened name of “Islamic State” in June 2014, but before that, the longer name was the full official name, when it claimed Iraq and Syria.

    And if the group thinks the longer name is no longer acceptable, all the more reason why it would reject these acronyms and only use “Islamic State” spelled out in full, as the article explains.

  • anonymous

    ISIS and state are COWARDS and BULLYS. Only such people have a need to be
    seen as Mini Gods. Its only an excuse to bully, rape and kill ect ect. Then hide
    themselves behind their man made ‘CLUB’ and let their mentally programed
    Military do their fighting. It is nothing more than a Gang with several members as
    in Americas Street Gangs, or West Coast – East Coast bigger Gangs. ISIS is
    nothing and our Heavenly Father is Not a part of this New State!!

  • Thanks for this excellent article, though it would have been good to have some comment on how we should pronounce it in English and why some seem to say “dash” we might have expected “da-esh”.

    Couldn’t help but giggle when, as Facepalmed points out, the flamers unwittingly demonstrate your point so beautifully: “tell me tell me tell me I want to know NOW no sorry too late I’ve lost interest”!

  • David

    Sorry, this article spends far too long getting to its point. I appreciate that some angry people have decided that critics of the length are arrogant or “boorish”. Well, I’m certainly arrogant enough to believe that this article could be hugely improved by editing. It’s just too long, particularly the opening third, and what’s more the extra length is boring, not boring because the length is too full with detailed analysis or in depth illumination, but because it’s full of needless authorial embellishments:

    – Primary problem: too many rhetorical questions. “But why have I decided to tell you all about this thing? … But what is the reason behind this issue?” Almost every piece of opinion or information is accompanied by several needless rhetorical questions that add nothing.
    – too much repetition “You might think its meaning is difficult to understand, too nebulous, too obscure, lost to all knowledge… etc etc” Pick a phrase you like and ditch the rest.
    – unnecessary self-explanation “In my job as a blah, I spend a lot of time doing X, and Y and having to think about Z…” So what. Doesn’t add anything. If you want to establish authority, just say what the author does the end of the piece.
    – too long spent telling the reader what they think, or might think, or might ask themselves: ” you might have been surprised … you may have asked yourself … perhaps pondering, over your cornflakes … wondering why you haven’t ever heard tell … you will have scoffed at repeated references … you even got inspired… “. And that’s just one paragraph. It’s endless, and its ultimately disingenuous. Has the reader asked themselves? No, you have asked yourself. Has the reader scoffed? No, you have scoffed. So just say what you have thought, and what has annoyed you, rather than trying to draw the reader in in a false conspiratorial way.

    So yes, in my opinion it could be improved by being shorter. There’s a really interesting needle here buried in a haystack of verbiage. If that sounds harsh, it is harsh, because no one ever improved anything by listening to platitudes and compliments.

  • Jayne

    Thank you so much for this thoughtful, nuanced, and detailed explanation. The internet needs more articles like this; and way fewer commenters like the “TL;DR” variety who have cropped up here.

  • Liberty Preis

    Very good and interesting read, thank you for explaining it so clearly.

  • Lisa

    There’s also the fact that the standard term for them in Israel has been Daesh all along. Having other nations adopt ìt, even though it’s just the acronym for their own name,must be absolutely infuriating.

  • My take is that calling these yahoos “Daesh” is a bit like the Spike Jones song during World War II, “Der Fuhrer’s Face.” Clever word play, hidden and blatant insults, and ridiculing them as a way to reduce the fear factor. Are you listening, #AP? https://youtu.be/dZlFBSRrSR0

  • Last Hussar

    I have heard a short version of this explanation some time ago, possibly on the BBC- Daesh came from the Arabic acronym, and they didn’t like it because it sounded like something insulting in Arabic. The fact that acronyms are seen as disrespectful wasnt mentioned I think.

  • Meldroc

    So, my guess is that the difference between calling that organization by its full name, or “The Islamic State, and calling it daesh is sort of like the difference between calling my own country the United States, and calling it “Murica” in terms of connotation? One is formal and denotes authority and respect, the other is mocking.

    Is that about right?

  • Dougal Bascombe

    Thank you for this. A comprehensive explanation of the origins and sources of DAESH and the weaknesses and failings of Western media.
    However, To my simple non-specialist mind, it became too complicated, somewhat repetitive and not always easy to understand where you were going.
    At the end I had to look back at the essay several times to get what I was looking for: why is DAESH derogatory and disliked by those terrorists? I am still not sure I found what I was looking for, maybe that’s my fault but for as detailed an analysis as this, I should not have that doubt.

  • koen222

    @arthur brogard

    You’re almost right, it doesn’t matter what we think of them. But it DOES matter what they think we think of them. Let them think we ridicule them, it’s their simplicity that will bring them down at some point anyway. That is why we are stronger, because we are with a lot more and because we have the longest breath.

  • Blaine

    Two problems with all of this: to trample or crush is either داس or دعس. It is not داعس. That’s not a word.

    Secondly, nowhere in any Arabic literature have I been able to find where داعش means “a group of bigots who impose their will on others.” In actual Arabic, that would translate to: وكانت مجموعة من المتعصبين الذين يفرضون إرادتهم على الآخرين. You provide no source for that claim.

  • Jim Olson

    I am sorry to have to break it to you, but some things just don’t require a ten thousand word explanation, and this is one of them. How about 250?

  • Filip Horbowski

    Nice article, very comprehensive. One correction of the transliteration there: the letter ‘ayn’ should be marked before ‘i’ in your transliteration of a word al-Iraq. Also, I must admit that some non-native Arabic speakers, like myself, might feel offended after reading your claim that they will never learn how to pronounce the amazing Arabic letter ‘ع’, as you called it. It’s true that it’s extremely hard and many will fail. However, many of us can master it and pronounce this troublesome letter as good as the native speakers. Again, great article!

  • Here is a youtube link of the word being pronounced:


  • Irritated Internationalist

    I found a good bit of academic interest here, but a shame that the the whining, rancorous style tends to obscure the meat of the post. I would be very interested in an edited version that focuses on the issue of the meaning of the term, as opposed to the pedantic complaining about the shortcomings of others.

  • Comms

    Unnecessarily insulting, Facepalmed. I wanted a quicker definition, too. The impact of the definition was lost in verbosity. Keep it short, keep it simple, get the message across; that is communication. Now keep your insults to yourself.

  • Peter

    Excellent article. Thank you.

  • Some of the comments on here are rather rude and seem not to realise that this is a blog first and foremost about literacy and language. The article length is fine and provides good context relating to the blog’s subject matter. Thankfully there are many here that appreciated it.

    For everyone else, your short attention spans will eventually get you into trouble.

  • Johnny Lundberg

    Thanks for the thorough explanation of daesh. But did I fail to understand the term monolingual as describing the english language? A mixture of celtic, gaelic, scandinavian, anglish, saxon and normandic danish-french. Very useful indeed, always with a good supply of synonyms, varying in nuance.

  • Warner Losh

    I wonder why you avoided the better slang term (in the US) for jerks that try to impose their will on others: Douchebag or just douche. Sounds a lot like the arabic daish and is anything but complementary.

    Thanks for the excellent article.

  • michael lyon

    The nature of America and our citizens merely ensures that those who want to know truth can find wonderful articles such as this and share them. Those who are ignorant will continue to parrot what they think is the truth and reveal their true nature. Democracy at its finest.

  • “Of course the amazing Arabic letter ‘ع’ which begins the word for ‘Iraq’ is unpronounceable to an anglophone, and can’t be written in Latin letters, hence the use of an ‘e’ (or occasionally an ’e) in the transliteration.”

    For me, more likely is that the use of the acronym was initially promoted by the Iranians, and عراق is pronounced with an initial /e/ in Persian.

  • Fredrick Murray

    Did no one tell the bad guys about the fact that if you show something bothers you the people that don’t like you will use it until the “cows come home?”

    Daish out and look that one up … bad guys.

  • Gugge B

    Short explanation
    The rejection of the acronym DAESH is just a consequence of the lingustic traditionalism of Wahabism. The rather recent phenomenon of using acronyms in Arabic is considered haram as it is seen as an expression of modernity. Using the acronym DAESH is shunned for the same reason that traditionalists frowns upon lazy abbreviations like: “Muhammad SAWS” (“Muhammad Sallallahu ‘Alayhe wa Sallam”)- in English “Muhammad, PBUH”, (“Muhammad, Peace Be Upon Him”).

  • I wonder if the use of acronyms in Palestinian organizations is influence from Hebrew and/or English. What do you think?

    This article has been linked at Language Hat and the Language Log.

  • ReaderOne

    Good God, why the novella?! Get to the point!

  • Marolyn Robbins-Guarr

    Thank you for a most enlightening article. I did and do realize the article is a blog, and I did enjoy the personal slant used in explaining the word and its meanings.
    I very much liked the somewhat etymological approach, even if the word has no true etymology.
    Ridicule may serve as a useful weapon against those using murder to try to “win friends and influence people.”

  • Mira

    I had wondered, and I had heard a lot of the erroneous translations that you mentioned.
    This makes way more sense.
    Thank you for this enlightening explanation.

  • Richard Arnold

    Based on your explanation I guess the best word or cultural equivalent in English that can covey the idea of the Arabic acroymn DASEH as ZOMBIES. I.e. a bunch of monkeys dressed up as zombies….

  • Thank you for this excellentt explanation. A report has been published in today’s issue of Inttranews
    Malcolm Duff, Chief Editor, Inttranews

  • Sean Landis

    Thank you for this. It is a keen reminder of just how difficult it is to intervene in another culture. Words are powerful in any language, and they connote so much that only people in the culture can truly understand.

    Regarding the accuracy of media, I have been in or near several ‘stories’ that were reported either in the papers or on TV. In every case, the presentation of the story was both inaccurate and aggrandized. Just as with culture and language, a significant event cannot be entirely understood by someone that did not experience it.

  • Jasper Lucas


    GREAT article! I JUST heard someone refer to “ISIS” as “DASH” (that’s how they pronounced it) last night, and I had no idea why they referred to them as that – until I read your article – as I had never heard anyone use that ‘name’ before.

  • ana

    disgusting angioma (of) excerebrose (and) spineless hooligans

  • Bill Harford

    Very well said, and much appreciated. It’s very obvious you put endless amounts of work into this piece and I admire that very much. Thank you for such a thorough and elegant explanation as well as for presenting a few thought provoking concerns. If only their were more article written like this about the term “Daesh”

    In regards to the some of the questions you pose in the penultimate and last paragraph, I have a possible answer. I believe the reason the western/anglophone media has shown such incompetence when describing the origin and meaning of “Daesh” is because it really is in their interest to do so.

    The terms “ISIS” and “ISL” have become buzzwords, of sorts, in anglophone media, just as Al-Qaeda did. The media would much rather use the term ISIS over Daesh due to their readers or viewers being much more familiar with the former and may become confused when they see the latter.

    Furthermore, with the recent attack in Paris there has been a resurgence of the term Daesh which has caused many media outlets to report on it, again with the same incompetence you described when you wrote this.

    This is because they do not bother putting in time to do real research and journalism on the word Daesh, because they know they will never use the term outside of that specific article. So instead they copy their counterparts and proliferate these misconceptions that you note early in your piece.

    Great article, we need more writers like you.

  • Cliff Batuello

    Great piece, Ms. Guthrie! Could you now speak of the word jihad? For the longest time, I’ve been asking people to refrain from calling these monsters jihadi as it connotes ‘holy warrior’. Can’t your own personal jihad merely be the challenge of getting an education? Aren’t we complimenting them by using ‘jihadi’ in reference? They are NOT holy warriors, but terrorists.

    Thanks to reply,

  • Blaine, ‘a group of bigots who impose their will on others’ was in the list of misapprehensions.

  • Marinus Vesseur

    Not really surprising that people draw the wrong conclusions if the “correct” explanation takes 2700 words and in the end still offers no concrete solution. This is tough reading material.

  • cf

    OMG! This is longer than 140 characters?! How can anyone be expected to read this? This will take me months… Can’t you put the thing I want to know in the first sentence? I just want to know how to pronounce Daesh. Also, could you come over to my house and put your fingers in my mouth to help me figure out how to move my lips and tongue when pronouncing it? Because that would be great.

    I know my criticisms and demands may sound harsh and ignorant, but nothing was ever improved to the point of greatness without taking into consideration the views of narcissistic, functionally illiterate trash. As a person with a deep understanding of language, who makes their living through writing, I’m sure you will understand and be willing to waste more of your time throwing pearls before swine, such as myself.

  • Dave Starr

    Today I am calling them the “knitters”. Tomorrow, “orange pips”!

  • @Cliff, “jihad” means “kampf” as in “Mein Kampf” by guess who.
    Re: #3 et al., the “Get to the point” crowd exemplify “a group of bigots who impose their
    will on others.” Look, nobody made you read it or charged you for it – if you don’t want to read it, don’t read it!
    Thanks, Alice, for your facts and for enlivening them with your professional interpretations and personal feelings.

  • sgt_doom

    So you are saying DAESH rhymes with fahish (sinners) and that also rhymes with jahesh (dumb asses)?

  • Sebastian

    Great article. Extremely well written and exactly what I was looking for. Cheers!!

  • Thanks Ms Guthrie.
    The word has been bandied about a lot recently and it’s etymology had me puzzled until now!
    Thanks for explaining it so clearly.

  • Peter

    Some may want to cut to the chase and go to paragraph beginning “So what does Daesh really mean?” To understand what Daesh really means.

  • ML

    Thank you for this illuminating blog post. I realize you intended it for linguists, but I (not a linguist) think you could make real contribution to the public conversation and understanding, by editing this down to its core and submitting it (along with your impressive credentials) to respected media — Washington Post, NY Times, International Herald Tribune, etc. — to get the information out to the public. You’d be doing a real service and perhaps starting a movement.

  • @Richard I guess you must be referring to Karl Ove Knausgård!


  • John

    Excellent article, hugely informative and written in an engaging style.

  • enjointhis!

    Thank you for the article. I enjoyed reading it, and I appreciate your efforts very much. I also enjoyed the nuances I picked up from some of the other commenters (thank you, @CrankyArabPhysicist). As for the proto-editors, I ignored them. And I hope you do too.

  • KSE

    Seconding enjointhis!… I really appreciated your explanation, and also CrankyArabPhysicist’s critique. I agree with Cranky that whatever its meaning to an Arab speaker, in English “Daesh” comes off as pompous and very much Of Mysterious Arabia – really the opposite of what’s intended. I’d already come to the conclusion that as an English-speaker, “ISIS” has about the same rhetorical effect (especially if you’re an Archer fan), so for myself I think I’ll be taking CAP’s advice and sticking with the one I can pronounce.

  • If the word is offensive largely beacuse it’s an acronym and that it’s not exactly how they like to be known – surely ISIS, IS and ISIL would have a similar effect?

  • Malek Amar

    In north african Arabic dialect. DAESH is also similarly sounding to DAEHSH. the name of the donkey cub (colt).

    Donkey is the one of the biggest insult of stupidity in Arabic, and cp;t (DAEHSH) is further belittling as it implies that the person has not even evolved into a full donkey/jackass status.

    DAEHSH is pronounced JAEHSH in Levant dialects.

    An yes, DAESH, when pronounced in Arabic, is very foul sounding.

  • Jim

    Whilst the information in here is quite educational, I would have preferred the text to be either more concise and less full with reader hooks, or, if the article had to be set at a particular length, then give more detailed information.

    I know that a lot of writers are getting sick of the Huffington Post, The Sun and other minimalist editorial scraps that refer to themselves as newspapers, but please, use the space granted to you give more raw data instead of trying to persuade the reader that you are just as surprised at the level of stupidity in Journalism as they are. Of course using language to help engage the reader is fantastic, but using lines like “perhaps pondering over your cornflakes”is just taking that familiarity a little too far. What if your reader has a trauma based around cornflakes? That is going to throw them right off. You could have used something more globally practiced like “You may have been thinking while having breakfast” or “While having breakfast you may have wondered..”. This way, you are staying away from naming products (did you get a box of free Cornflakes for mentioning it? *smiles*) and just using a global idea.

    Other than that, at least it was a lot more informative than the “journalism” you see in some of the more prominent news sights, like Huff Post or CNN.

    For those readers who missed it in the article, Daesh is sounded out as something like Day-ish.

  • About two-thirds of the way through this article I began to suspect it was clickbait… still not sure it wasn’t!

  • Rose Marie Holt

    I’m liking JAESH

  • frankly

    Way more information than needed, while I appreciate the depth of your work i’d prefer a paragraph with the relevant explanation for what Daesh means and then the in depth piece. I can’t exactly send people here because most won’t bother reading. Need a TL;DR

  • Thanks for the excellent article. As a linguist, I often find it strange what monolingual people in general, and nonlinguist journalists, come up with when talking or writing about language. We all share the ability of use language, it is one of the most important features of being human, and yet we are so ignorant about it in so many way.

  • The linguist Lameen Souag points out that Daesh “most clearly sounds like Dāḥis, the name of a horse whose killing ignited a famously bloody and fratricidal forty-year war in the pre-Islamic period. ([Here is a] published example of this association.) In addition to the obvious association with barbarism, murder, and ignorance, this reinforces the association with animality […]”.

  • Brad

    I can understand why western media took a massive shortcut — it took all my will power to read this whole article. “Selling” news is about simplicity and boiling down issues into “sound bites”. The origins of Daesh, although very enlightening and informative, is just too long for many of us that have limited time and need to move onto the next story line / paragraph / headline.

  • Ron Martin

    Now we all know what daesh means and also how intelligent Alice is. Have a good day everyone.

  • Thank you for an intelligent, enlightening and entertaining explanation Alice. Please ignore the ignorant comments from ill-intentioned men. They are jealous of your expertise. You are inspiring.

  • Lial Guigon

    “There’s a great power in words, if you don’t hitch too many of them together.”

    Josh Billings (1815-1885) American humorist and lecturer.

  • Ray J

    Personally, I thought this article was too short and would’ve read as much commentary as you could’ve possibly written. You covered all the aspects well, and it is a shame that a lot of people do not have the attention span to read more than 250 words (the apparent word limit for an article that has been previously stated by commenters). Thank you.

  • Sukatra

    For all the snobbish commenters making fun of others who felt this article was way too detailed, arrogant, full of irrelevant asides, etc.:

    If the ultimate goal of this article was to provide a simple, cogent explanation for why Daesh is a better term to use than ISIS, in the hopes of convincing people to use it and thereby undermine Daesh/ISIS, it is a massive failure. Most people won’t read it, and of those who do many will still be confused by the unnecessarily fussy explanation and some will be put off by the arrogant and condescending tone.

    If the goal was a critical examination of the failures of the English speaking media to adequately understand and explain what Daesh means, she’s done a great job. While this may be meaningful and important in the field of linguistics and/or journalism, or as a broader attack on the failure of western culture to fully appreciate and understand non-western cultures, it doesn’t further the concrete and immediate need to convince people that using Daesh will help to delegitimize a group of people terrorizing large chunks of the world in the name of Islam.

    But you keep on with your sneering at the great unwashed who just want to understand why the heck the term Daesh is oreferable to ISIS.

  • Michael Kennedy

    Many thanks for this explanation, Alice.
    I will now have more confidence in attempting to convince people to use the preferred term ‘Daesh’.

  • John Oakes

    Most people you are trying to reach with these distinctions don’t care -they just want an easily-remembered and associated name to condemn them with. In English, that’s ISIS . Not Daesh.

  • DN

    Nevermind the idjits. (Meaning both Daesh and the pitchfork-wielders here.)

  • Justin James

    Ok,I suspect that the answer is somewhere in this breathtakingly overwritten article. Unfortunately I may have passed out before I reached it.

    Thankfully I went to a heap of media outlets and got a good, simple, clear explanation, that was no different from what this article is trying to convey.

    While I can see that the author is well versed on the subject and appreciate the effort, often the key to less confusion is less words.

  • Lynda

    No offense, but this article is a textbook example of “tl;dr” Maybe add a quick synopsis/conclusion?

  • jamie

    brilliantly explained, i am not a well educated fella so i search foe knowledge on line, i found this really informative and great to argue my point with some (plenty lol) of ignorant folk who don’t take the time to research but instead believe social (facebook umm?) media. Thankyou.

  • Alif

    it’s DA’ISH with an i – the thing about ‘e’ for ayn is rubbish, the arabs and persians think ‘e’ is the vowel in ‘pit’.

  • Sean O

    Wow, there are lot of crabby people with short attention spans on the internet. Bizarre.

  • Bee Whistler

    The impatience shown in some of these comments disappoints me. Have we reached the point where the written word is considered a burden? If you mean to represent yourselves as members of advanced, educated, and civilized society, then take responsibilty for your own problems rather than throw a tantrum because the article is too long. Ye gods, I can almost hear the shrillness. Skim the information, get the gist of it, and quit acting as though it’s a fault to explain something thoroughly. It’s as though you went to her house, asked her for a drink, and complained that you are required to pick up the glass and pour it into your own mouth!

  • Mr. Ferrero

    I personally enjoyed it. But I’m a linguist and teacher of English to many Arabic students. Their language I barely speak and cannot read/write, so I find it fascinating analysing it on this level.
    I think it’s important to remember it’s a blog. I read the whole article and all the comments and, apart from selected contributors who informed and provided more analysis (chiefly @Cranky Arab Physicist) if anyone wants to go on to redraft it to 250 words, as a press release or ‘viral Facebook status’, citing this article, that would serve the online world much more effectively than some of these proportionately waffly versions of “TL:DR.” Hope the critics agree. Thank you Alice, never heard of you or this blog until reading this.

  • Let’s see..
    Now most of the islamic states supporters dont mind to use the short form after the meaning of the word ‘dâ’ish’ has become known to most..
    You may care to check its meaning in Persian and Urdu. Both meanings suit the state to a T..

  • Alvaro

    I am afraid the right term is al-yahIliyya, not al-jahaliyya.

  • jwlk

    Thank you for the explanation but would have to agree with others that your writing style could use a good deal of paring.

  • Eric Posmentier

    Interesting material, but I’ve never read a scholarly work that was so arrogant and condescending! Read it again and see what I mean.

    I’m sure that Alice is not the only professional who occasionally feels some lack of respect for a crowd of laypersons. But most of us, fortunately, identify those feelings in ourselves and keep them out of our public utterances. The others, like Alice, constitute yet another wedge with which to drive apart experts in one area from laypersons in that area.

  • Bruce

    Thank you Alice for an excellent explanation of this word and its history. This is the first sensible and detailed understanding of the word I have found – the whole piece is fascinating. I don’t understand the comments about it being too long – if a reader can’t keep up with sooo many words, stick to twitter. Brevity is not always the key to communication.
    On daesh as satire, there is some argument that satire reinforces existing feelings rather than provides new insights, and I wonder if using satire to irritate them may be counter-productive and just anger them further and encourage them to new depths of barbarity? Daesh, as a term, must be more significant to the victims of daesh as a means of delegitimising their assailants and their actions, than it is in humiliating or weakening daesh? On the other hand, naming you enemy with a name you choose, and not the name your enemy choses for itself, is a form of power. Thanks again.

  • ASLIP (Actually Studied Linguistics In Past)

    It’s fine to begin a discussion of what Daesh *is* by first clearing up what Daesh *isn’t* – the drawbacks are (1) the superior tone and (2) the absence of specific citations of erroneous journalistic coverage.

    Also, the statement that the Arabic letter ‘ayn is unpronounceable by Anglophones seems unlikely. Presumably the author, herself functional in English, has mastered it, and I doubt she is unique. If this article is indeed intended for linguists, I would have expected something like, “The Arabic letter ‘ayn is, depending on the speaker’s region, a voiced epiglottal or pharyngeal fricative. Unilingual Anglophones may find it challenging to reproduce this sound accurately.”

    Aside from the lack of specificity about which journalists deserve rubbishing, I found this account interesting and informative.

  • Ken

    ”unwillingness to explain, on the part of the mainstream anglophone media”

    Well, yes. They prefer to conflate Daesh with Islam. That supports the governments’ drive to divide the people so there is no unity to resist their evil plans.

  • Lee

    Thanks for an actual explanation.

  • David

    I was hoping to find here a concise explanation of the meaning of Daesh…..this is far too long for most of us I suspect who are not looking for the underlying Arabic minutae.

  • RC

    Based on what I’ve read daesh means nothing, so their is nothing for them to be upset about.

  • Terry Lloyd

    If it takes umpteen paragraphs to describe fully the meaning of the word, then – by definition – the majority of the people who use it (who haven’t the time to read and absorb those paragraphs) must surely be ignorant of its full meaning.

    I’d have thought that the English language could have furnished an alternative.

  • Allan

    Well done.

  • Daesh Vader

    Does she own Alice’s Restaurant?

  • I think the person who invented the acronym deliberately made it to sound like immature donkey. Now that is funny.
    Why are people who are whittling about what ‘hard work’ and ‘time-consuming’ spending even more of their precious effort and valuable time whittling on here? ffs smh!


  • George Vardan

    Very interesting explanation from ligustic point. But, it is worthy to mention that Da Esh in armenian means This donkey – actually the very same is on logo above. When i heard it first time, i thought it is in armenian referring to those assinus as Esh in armenian!!! But article is brilliant about sattire and preislamic deeds. I always admired the way how mystique and veiled the East is! Only few in anglophone world are capable to comprehend such brain salad surgery as i red here. Thank You.

  • Paul

    Superb article. Many thanks.

  • Andrew

    No wonder Daesh isn’t catching on. It takes 3000 words to explain.

  • Duncan M

    Is it the fact that Alice is a woman, or that she is intelligent and erudite that the machsi on here feel so threatened?

  • Stephen Oakes

    Dont you think it is also a disruption due to the freemason, skull and bones, bullingdon, and so many other fraternities having a great respect of Osiris and Isis in their beliefs, So they can distance the great Isis (mother) consort of Osiris from the Islamic jihadist whom also know how this name is offensive to the christian west when in context of Islam..

  • Chris

    Thank you!

  • Roger Webster

    The main point of the article is that Da’esh /الدولة الاسلامية في العراق والشام / is simply Arabic for ISIS. Not rocket science but does underscore the truth of the secondary observation that Westerners so easily cast Arabs / Arabic speakers / Muslims / Orientals as somehow unfathomably mysterious, illogical, untranslatable. The Middle East may be full of intractable political problems but language really shouldn’t be one of them – Arabic is beautifully logical. In answer to Cranky Arab Physicist, “jihad” may well be translated literally as “effort”, but surely it is much better understood as a counterpart, though not a literal translation, of English “crusade” – with the historical and moral connotations both positive and negative of that term.

  • Amy

    Thank you for the context and the linguistic nuance of the word Daesh. The comments I read at the end were funny. I appreciate your integrity in not replying (after all, you already had your say). I doubt you’d get so much “editorial feedback” if you had signed the piece with a man’s name. The thread of commentary just seemed to reek of either sexism or benevolent sexism…either you go on and on, you whine, or you are elegant and intelligent Alice. For fuck’s sake. This tone bashing (or tone-gazing) is probably because no one can question the actual linguistic or even international media facts in the piece (Yuck, fact-checking!) and a few people have read The Elements of Style or somesuch and are now experts on how to present commentary. On a blog. The sites are meant to be an exploration and weaving between the factual and personal! And the personal brought me to an interesting point by the end: that perceptions of words could be a key to unlock a door marked Peace closed everywhere.

  • Alexander nikoluc

    To much said about a bunch of low life frustrated ignorants that should be exterminated from this planet. Isis, daesh, what a difference makes.
    Everybody is so obssesed with being política lluvia correct.

  • Steven Ward

    I wish there were an abbreviated form of this article. I get that many English speakers don’t do the work to fully understand meanings coming from other languages. I also get that attention to the details is quite important. That being said, reading this article was WORK!

    I read the entire thing because I DO want to completely understand the subtle distinctions that our media often glosses over…but it needs a synopsis.

  • ISIL – International Society for Individual Liberty has been around for decades and supports promoting libertarian thought. If one visits their homepage, http://ISIL.org right now you will see them promoting the work of advocates of non-violence like Mary J. Ruwart.

    I know an acronym can stand for more than one thing, but notice it is only the President and his cronies who are calling IS “ISIL.” Most people call them ISIS (Which isn’t much better since it insults an Egyptian Goddess as well as many Egyptian women who have that name).

  • Ray H

    I have no idea what the term DAESH means nor why it is perjorative. Your explanation [paragraph 8] runs to several lines and nowhere do we see “So DAESH means —–” nor why the so-called ISIS doesn’t like it. Are you paid by the word? Wasted fifteen minutes of my time trying to find out the reason for the headline.

  • Thank you so much for this. It says so much above and beyond the individual issue.

  • Rory Mack

    Terry Benson-Carpet’s summary was grand and I enjoyed some of Alice’s academic treatise of the subject, before it proved a great cure for my insomnia.

  • Andrew Corser

    I would just like to echo the overwhelming praise of your article, Ms Guthrie in the above comments – an excellent analysis (so it seems to me, although I am not a linguistician). In its context, I personally see no basis for any complaint about its length (which I feel comes from the rigour with which the subject has been treated).

    I am very disappointed with the way the BBC seems unwilling to be more careful in its news terminology (witness the discussion with Aljezeera about the “migrant” crisis, which was clearly largely a refugee crisis, but which the BBC resolutely referred to using the word migrant) but I wonder whether a small campaign to nudge them into using the word Daesh in preference to Islamic State may bear fruit …?

    Thanks for your very helpful (and significant ?) contribution to the general debate, and to my own understanding in particular .

  • Crybabies

    All the people complaining about the length of the article: have you ever finished a book? Even a chapter?

    How on Earth have you finished school?

    In the internet era it seems that attention deficit became the new norm.

    I wonder if this explains why the anglophone media is ridden with lazy inaccuracies.

  • Greg

    Alice: Thanks heaps for a really informative and interesting article, which is just about the right length, I would say.

    Richard: Godwin’s Law!

  • I’m very much enjoying all the comments essentially complaining that the article isn’t a simple 150 word broadsheet explanation — and seemingly oblivious to the irony that’s what they’re doing.

  • Christos S Gryparis

    An exceptionally detailed analysis – Thank you!

  • Explanation of the word/acronym Daesh

  • Safarjal

    What she said about Daesh sounding like a word from the period of Jahiliyya? Actually, when I first heard the word Daesh, I thought it reminded me of something, until I remembered. It’s part of what we studied in our class on Jahiliyya literature. One of the major jahiliyya poets, Antra ibn Shaddad, fought in these wars and he refers to his bravery and fighting ability often in his poetry.
    A series of very bloody wars were fought, among two tribes, called the War(s) of Dahis and Ghabra. Dahis and Ghabra were two horses belonging to rival clans. There was a horse race between these two horses, and when one appeared to be winning, the other side cheated, setting off a 40 year war. The peace for that was eventually brokered by two very rich people who paid the blood money for everybody ho had died in either clan.
    The word Daesh recalls those senseless and barbaric wars, fought for rivalry and glory. It delegitimizes Daesh by claiming that they aren’t fighting for the glory of Islam, but for senseless personal glory and rivalry.

  • Andy Cripp

    I suspect the guy who originated the concept is probably up near the top of ISIS death list now.

  • Hozco808@gmail.com

    It doesn’t really matter what people’s comments are or how it is interpreted from one language to another or what is lost in translation, when it all comes down to one thing the these idiots are waste of human skin! And should be wiped off the face of the earth! unlike their thoughts and their fear of education for women, and their stupidity for culture. I have been to 43 countries and have had no problems with anybody that has the slightest amount of education. Illiteracy is the world’s largest problem! And just like Hitler yet again which everybody said it can’t happen again but is, 1 asinine person is controlling millions of people’s lives and twisting the entire world into chaos. Why do we let Assad keep getting away with what he is doing? Talking is over! Kill this murdering bastard once and for all!

  • Alexandra Sterling

    In addition to the fact that Arabic speakers rarely use acronyms that do not correspond to known vocabulary, daesh in Arabic is remarkably ugly-sounding. Nothing that sounds good rhymes with it; many Levantines use an sound to change words into baby-talk, at best. That letter appears as the last letter in the lexicon of Arabic used by teenagers making up their own insider cant. And nicknames are profoundly offensive to observant Muslims: the scripture says: “And do not inflict ugly nicknames or snipe at one another; the worst name to be known by is ‘foul-mouthed’ after professing faith.”

  • Rebecca Catanese

    Like slogging through neck deep snow to get to nothing. I tried by best, even going back three times thinking I must have missed something, as it became more unclear with each sentence. This, from an English teacher!

  • Andrew Hockley

    Thank you for a wonderfully lucid article.
    I had previously asked for an explanation from an Arabophone acquaintance.
    When I heard the the bitter irony and hint of expectoration when they repeated ‘Da’esh’, I got the idea and sense very clearly. You have added flesh and bones.

    You hit a good number of my politico/socio/cultural/linguistic buttons too: Lazy journalism, anglophone hegemony just to start with.


  • Duncan Munro smith

    Most grateful for your explanation. I hope that the English speaking world read your most important and useful work.

  • Pav Verity (Edinburgh)

    A useful and interesting article. Yes, it could have been briefer.. so I will make my comment this short, with a short quote for some disparagers…

    “It is better to stay silent & be thought an idiot, than open your mouth & prove it”

  • Shannon

    I really enjoyed the article, Alice. I appreciated your linguistic and cultural insights. Thank you!

  • Janet

    Thanks. But why use 15,000 words when 150 will suffice? Such a rambling and bombastic explanation not necessary. It would certainly help if you get to the point – which at the end you still left not solidly and concreatly clear!!!

    Back to Translation school for you.

  • Barbara Scwharz

    Thanks Alice Guthrie for the detailed explanation. I knew they didn’t like it but wondered why. I hear constantly when I watch videos of the various forces who are fighting against them. Also regarding the Anglophone world, read the above responses and you see that a lot of them want instant soup out of a packet as few of them know what an onion is.

  • Kornelije Kovac

    Democratic, America Established, Sharia Habitat

  • kombi

    Awesome description and a wonderful way of the everyday person to give the genocidal occupying forces in Syria and Iraq the legimacy they deserve……..none.

  • Emperor Zurg

    I’m glad you published this article — I was looking for the root in my Hans Wehr and couldn’t find it.

  • Is this like referring to some made-up law that goes P(word) H(word) A(word) R(word) T(word Bill) as the the PHART bill and giggling over how it sounds like the FART bill?

  • Sean Patterson

    It is NOT new, they have called themselves this since the beginning, but the media has studiously ignored it until now.

  • James Elliott

    I have used daesh since taking a class on modern Middle East history. My professor did not explain it as well as you have; but he made it plain that they didn’t like it at all. That was good enough for me, but I am glad to know the truth of it. Thank You.

  • James Elliott

    Couldn’t this be shortened into a meme. ha, ha ha

    • Bob Gemale

      “Green Day rulz” “legalize weed”

  • Jubilee

    A glorious saturation of coverage for this, predictable, name game.

  • Nanook122

    Excellent explanation. Well done!

  • kramasw

    Desh in Sanskrit or Daesh in Arabic means country

  • Russell Smith

    And perhaps the reason the American governments detests ISIS is because it is already a an acronym for a fairly militaristic American military organization:

    Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has a little-known program called Integrated Sensor is Structure, managed by the United States Air Force, which uses the acronym ISIS. According to the DARPA website, the program was launched to research the development of a stratospheric surveillance airship of “unprecedented proportions.”


    Obama secret quote: “Those damn Daesh copycats!” 😉

  • Scruffy J Nerfherder

    I’ve finished a chapter and even an entire book. This article is remarkably long winded, esoteric, and full of unwanted information. Intelligent people value their time and don’t like it being wasted.

  • Scruffy J Nerfherder

    So after reading and skimming through hoards of ramblimbling esoteric jiberish I can just summarize that this new word for ISIS amounts to a bit of name calling and satire.

  • kdk

    Thanks for the explanation.

  • George Jones

    They keep calling the same group by different names to make the low information people that this is a new group and the other group(s) have been defeated. Just call them what they are “terrorist”

    • John Grayhawk

      Quit looking for conspiracies everywhere. I’m glad they are using Daesh and ISIL more as Isis was actually a benevolent goddess in Egytian mythology; sucks to see the name splattered across the headlines and associated with these murdering savages.

      • Bob Gemale

        something lost in translation – they are noble freedom fighters and tender vegan poet singers, all

  • John Fitzgerald

    I hereby name this article “BLEFoSS” – Big long explanation for something simple – which essentially explains the premise 🙂
    Excellent information though, and I hope “Daesh” catches on and accomplished its purpose.

  • Viresta

    There is such a thing as balance. Here we have over 4000 letters before we even get to “so what does Daesh mean”. If the average dictionary was this windy we’d need shire horses outside

  • Bertdanger

    OMG…can you just be clear? What is the definition in a simple explanation? I don’t have time to read a 2000 word essay.

  • Bill

    Your reply could be shorter. Just sayin’.

  • Kieran Mcdonnell

    read about the first 3 paragraphs, havent even seen an attempt to tell me what ‘daesh’ actually means. I think I’ll find out quicker typing this message then re-opening the search page and clicking on another link…. ever heard of a TL;DR?

  • Daybo.

    Thank God they aren’t in the Levant.
    Israel don’t play those games.

  • John Grayhawk

    People should learn to scan articles and quit complaining. However usually a sizable article like this should state the main point in the first couple of paragraphs for casual readers and then have a more in depth analysis after that. That’s a reasonable compromise.

  • John Grayhawk

    You think they report the ‘West’ any differently? No. Everyone country is going to have a cultural center that they consider best and report on more often. That’s just the way things are. Everything gets put into categories, including western and middle east culture. I am not offended by it.

    • Ken Nonickname Nonecknom Under

      If you pay attention to the quality of the narratives it becomes very obvious what is the truth and what is plain invention or dowright lies.
      Narrativium. The essential element of credibility.
      The essential question: does it make sense?

  • RM

    Excellent article, but I have one word of advice: if someone is being stupid or lazy about you or something you care about, don’t take it as a personal insult or identify it as a conspiracy targeted at you. Stupid lazy people, or even smart hard-working people working to a crushing deadline, are just that.

  • RM

    The problem with the internet era is not the short attention spans, it is the self-publishing of narcissistic long-winded drivel that in the print era would have been slashed down to straightforward information by an editor before anyone else saw it. I am not saying that is true in this case, but I would have prefered if this article focussed on reporting the facts instead of going on about western this and anglophone that. Inform people in a clean direct way and they will read you and then everyone gains from it.

    • kattmanduu

      She is NOT A REPORTER she is a linguistics specialist asked to define a term/word the best way possible. She did that in a manner that dispels all of the crap in the media we are seeing and hearing now. She had to go to such detail to explain the many different ways the word is applied and how it was derived and modified through time and use. Just like the compound word “understand” that originally wasn’t used as we do today, it was those 2 words, to stand under or place yourself subservient to the party or persons you are having interaction with such as a court of law or a monarchy. So there you go, another linguistics lesson. She did her job quite well.

      • J. R. Estes

        Indeed she did. And she is thanklessly despised for her effort, discipline and her restraint. .

  • Jennifer Winkler

    Re the length of this piece: There is a certain public disservice in luring people down a track which takes far, far longer to deliver its promise than is necessary.

  • Lyn Griffiths

    you really are a one off

  • Jeffrey F Huntsman

    Thank you. I too am a linguist (with no Arabic whatsoever, unfortunately) and share your distress at the bizarre suggestions you mention. Isidore of Seville would be proud. I appreciate your thoroughness.

  • U.E

    Awesome article. Thanks. Keep up the good works.

  • PennyKay

    Thank you for the in-depth & well-written explanation.

  • E4439qv5

    It has no direct denotation. Its etymology is an acronym of what the group calls themselves. And it appears acronyms in Arabic are pretty confounding things. Several reasons are given by the author as to what makes the connotation so detestable to the members of the “state,” most prominent being that it’s used as satire to de-legitimize the state by not using the long-winded name they made for themselves.

  • E4439qv5

    Oh dear. I didn’t realize I was tramping on the feelings of a goddess of wisdom. I’ll try to be more sensitive to the feelings of fictitious persons from now on.

  • E4439qv5

    Huh. I didn’t even notice until you mentioned in. I did see a comment this one guy who said her first name, but I chalked that up to code speech– the old Alice and Bob bit, even though the second name in this case is Richard.

    Doesn’t matter and shouldn’t matter. I liked the article just fine before knowing this tidbit and there’s nothing to change that position now.

  • Wake Up People

    I liked it, understood it, and welcomed it! I have been using this to refer to this group of global thugs since the first time I read this article.

  • Kevin B.

    I really enjoyed this, I think it was great and am sad I didn’t find it when it was new.

    But damn, this REALLY needed some editing. Your criticisms of Anglo-phone/Western media are very poignant and well-deserved but I found myself skipping around reading this as it comes off more as a rant (which is, understandable, to say the least) but still at it’s length a great difficulty and a disservice.

    To get anyone I know to read it, even people in International Relations and the military I had to selectively edit the parts that explained what it actually meant and why. There’s no organization despite the paragraph breaks. Not trying to sound condescending, I can only imagine how frustrating the kind of ignorance being spouted at high levels in the West is on the subject, but you’d find a much bigger audience and be much more persuasive if there was any organization of thought. Even if the media criticism came first, anything to make it less a sprawling verbal rant and it’d be my go to for explaining Daesh to Americans and posted everywhere on my Facebook discussions, etc.

    • Y.Whateley

      I think that’s the most fair criticism I’ve seen of the article, good and bad. I found it fascinating and enlightening reading, but could tell by the third paragraph that something was wrong, and you put your finger on what that was exactly.

      Also, in addition to the obvious need for the restraint of an editor, and the ranting and disorganization, the article kind of starts out slamming the rank-and-file press for failing to find an explanation for why the word upsets its targets that is both accurate and pithy, and then goes into a number of very long, meandering paragraphs of fairly difficult-to-explain reasons that really just go to illustrate the point of anyone in the press who claimed that the word was difficult to explain to the English-speaking world: any short answer, except possibly for loose metaphors, would ultimately be inadequate for revealing the nuances of the word, and any proper explanation for it would really just derail whatever the reporter was originally trying to report on.

  • Y.Whateley

    Sounds like the short version is that, essentially, referring to an organization that takes itself very seriously as “Daesh” is roughly equivalent to calling them something like “The Grumpkins and Snarks”, “The Nattering Nabobs”, or “Cloudcuckoolanders”. I can get that.

  • pbecke

    Impressive article, Alice. You sound like a potential conference interpreter, who, I’m told, tend to go mad after about ten years. Don’t overdo it, will you ?

    If you know Mike Parry, another Arabist ‘pointy-head’, give him my regards, will you ? I haven’t been able to locate him lately. I’m sure the bounder’s hiding from me, as I’m not in good odour with government agencies interested in geopolitics, especially of this Middle-Eastern persuasion.

    Re our neglect to exploit the satirical power of the designation, ‘Daesh’, could it not be precisely because of its satirical sting that the anglophone world has ignored it ? Have we not been covertly funding, arming and fighting with Daesh ?

  • kattmanduu

    Most western media outlets are in it for the money, not to print any kind of facts. To print the facts is the right way to do it. But that requires actual work/labor on their part, someone will have to take the time to research it and then someone will have to make it into a digestible size for the twitter/facebook society that has to have everything spoon fed to them in small portions, in small words, due to their lack of a real education where you might learn such things. That costs them too much money and that cuts into their profit margins and stock values so they won’t do the right thing. I bet neither Trump or Clinton could figure this one out on their own.

  • Bob Gemale

    Americans don’t understand much of anything beyond
    “duh Green Day rulz”
    “duh, no, Green Day sux”
    “duh you suck”
    “duh yo mama LOLZ”
    “I hope you die”
    “duh legalize weed duh”

  • Bob Gemale

    in short, calling them Daesh will in no way whatsoever dishearten them, chagrin them, shame them, make them lay down their weapons and go home to smoke weed and listen to Miley Cyrus forevermore

  • J. R. Estes

    Thank you for an incredible article with a perspective and diligence that very few Americans, from poor choice, can appreciate due to our poverty in linguistics and our silly fear of other cultures.

  • Captain Phlaerd Phluff

    This was an absolutely wonderful article and immensely interesting.
    Kudos and thank you, Alice Guthrie.

  • Douglas Aalseth

    Superb. I started using Daesh a year or more ago, just because the people on the ground fighting them were using it. I figured they had the most right to name these monsters. It’s good to get the full meaning.

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