I learned in one of my Chinese classes at the University of Michigan – was it philosophy before the Han Dynasty? Or the survey of Chinese poetry? – how important names were in ancient Chinese culture, a mystical forecasting the destiny and inner traits of the child. I learned from Robert Alter that when the angels told Abraham he would have a son with Sarah, he fell on the floor laughing (and his wife laughed, too, a little more discreetly). After all, he was 100 and she 90 years old. Hence, their child was named Isaac, a transliteration of the Hebrew term Yiṣḥāq which literally means “He laughs/will laugh.” Names meant something back in those days.
Today’s Middle Eastern world doesn’t quite have the hang of this custom, for the new group of thugs terrorizing the region re-baptize themselves every other day – first ISIS, then ISIL, then IS, then the Islamic Caliphate. Who can keep track of it all? Apparently, they are unhappy with the monikers, discarding them one after another, like a 16-year-old Valley Girl trying on jeans in an Abercrombie and Fitch fitting room. May I join the party and do the same? I think I need a new title, too. From now on, I think I shall call myself the Pearly Queen, and you are all the Book Haven’s subjects (don’t applaud, just throw money). It seems the perfect moment to renew our long-lapsed Orwell Watch, in this case for the abusive manipulation of language for political ends.
The Associated Press desperately tried to get on top of the history, not realizing that the terrorists were making it up as they go along – each name more grandiose, promising more legitimacy than the previous one: “In July, the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, announced its rebranding. He declared that the territory under his control would be part of a caliphate, or an Islamic state, shortening its name from Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL — the acronym used by the Obama administration and the British Foreign Office to this day. The Levant can refer to all countries bordering on the eastern Mediterranean, from Greece to Egypt.” The story added: “The inconsistency, while confusing for some, has not deterred the group’s growing exposure on social media, with so many hashtags, posts and tweets ultimately directing readers and viewers to their news.”
Anyway, “Vive la France!” France has always been a nation that takes its language seriously. So seriously, in fact, that Académie Française was established in 1635 to adjudicate the usages, vocabulary, and grammar of the French language, and to publish an official dictionary of the French language. Since then, they have been doing their best to drive out foreign incursions into their Larousse, fiercely rejecting neologisms and Americanisms such as “drugstore,” “cookies,” and “weekend.” The French diet became so dire that in recent decades America had to send them CARE packages with new words in them, parachuting the boxes past the Académie Française gunners.
Such a persnickety people are not going to fall over themselves trying to accommodate terrorists – at least not when it comes to language. According to the Huffington Post here:
The French foreign ministry released a statement earlier this week referencing the Islamic State group as “Daesh.” The new moniker is a transliteration of an acronym of the group’s Arabic name “al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham. It is also similar to the arabic word that means “to trample.”
France’s foreign minister Laurent Fabius explained that he views the organization as “a terrorist group, not a state.”
“I do not recommend using the term Islamic State because it blurs the lines between Islam, Muslims and Islamists. The Arabs call it ‘Daesh,’ and I will be calling them the ‘Daesh cutthroats,'” Fabius said, according to France 24.
Oh well, “to trample” is a good place to start. I wonder what the correct name for “to behead” or “to crucify” might be? (Fabius in the press conference referred to them as “butchers,” but apparently that name didn’t make the final cut.) Egypt had its own innovation: “Egypt’s top Islamic authority, Grand Mufti Ibrahim Negm, last month called on the international community to refer to the group as ‘al-Qaida separatists’ and not the Islamic State.” It doesn’t end there. In Britain, a group of Muslims in the UK has called on the government to call the group the “UnIslamic State.” How wet. Kind of like calling acetaminophen “non-aspirin.”
Here’s the bad news: the terrorist group is not happy with the French innovation. C’est dommage. According to the AP: “Several residents in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city which fell to the extremist group in June, told The Associated Press that the militants threatened to cut the tongue of anyone who publicly used the acronym Daesh, instead of referring to the group by its full name, saying it shows defiance and disrespect. The residents spoke anonymously out of fear for their safety.”
If all of France uses it, ISIS/ISIL/Daesh/Whatever will have its work cut out for them – that’s 66.03 million people. In any case, the French are pros. They’ve been through the beheading thing before. Vive la France!