ISIL, ISIS or IS? The Etymology of the Islamic State

Douglas McAuthur McCain is the first American to die in the service of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. Reuters

The United States is about to start a war—or maybe it already has—against ISIS. Or is that ISIL? Or The Islamic State? Most Westerners (with the exception of some French, apparently) agree that they are "evil." But what we can't quite seem to come consensus on is what they should be called, owing in part at least to the fact that they change their name so often. It's hard to keep up.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi founded the group in 1999 as "Jamaat al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad," (JTJ) meaning roughly "Oneness and Jihad." In 2004, Zarqawi pledged himself and his fighters to Osama bin Laden and changed the name of the group to Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). In 2006, AQI announced it was changing its name yet again, this time to the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). When the group expanded into Syria, it changed its name again, and this is where it gets tricky. The group officially called itself the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Al-Sham, rendered الشام in Arabic, refers to a specific part of Syria, the area around and including Damascus. However, there is another, similar, construction, Bilad al-Sham, which refers to greater Syria, part of what we traditionally consider the Levant. Translated this way, the group's name is the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Hence ISIL. The group recently dropped Iraq and al-Sham from its name, becoming simply the Islamic State (IS), a shift that points to territorial ambitions beyond the region.

President Obama and his administration generally stick to ISIL. The United Nations also prefers ISIL. House Democrats held a long debate over what to call the group, eventually deciding to join the ISIL camp. Before it dropped Iraq and al-Sham, the Associated Press insisted on ISIL, as well, but now uses IS.

On the other side, most other news organizations used ISIS, at least until the organization changed its name most recently. The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and Reuters all preferred ISIS, but all three outlets also used all three names more-or-less interchangeably. Notably, BuzzFeed still uses ISIS, while most other organizations have moved to using Islamic State.

The New York Times, the paper of record, announced today that it will refer to the group exclusively as the Islamic State.

The NY Times house style on ISIS/ISIL will switch to "the Islamic State" starting on Wednesday.

— Liam Stack (@liamstack) September 15, 2014

To complicate matters further, Dar al-Ifta al-Misriyyah, an organ of the Egyptian government and thought leader of sorts in the Islamic World, recently suggested the media should refer to the group as QSIS, short for al-Qaeda Separatists in Iraq. Calling the group the Islamic State, it argues, is an insult to nonviolent Muslims. So far, no major Western news media outlet has adopted this acronym.