Here’s why the Islamic State group has so many names

There are several iterations of the Islamic State group name — IS, ISIS, ISIL and “Daesh,” the term French President François Hollande used when referring to the group’s recent attacks on Paris.

How do the names differ in meaning? And who’s saying what? Here’s a breakdown.

Islamic State

According to leading Islamic State expert Cole Bunzel, the group was founded in October 2006 as the Islamic State of Iraq, or Islamic State. It was initially an offshoot of al-Qaeda that’s since become a rival.

In 2013, after taking territory in Syria, it began referring to itself as “Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham” or “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” — ISIS for short.

Then in 2014, after declaring itself a caliphate — an Islamic government led by the prophet Muhammed’s successor — the group was back to calling itself Islamic State. Many, including British Prime Minister David Cameron, believe that using that phrase denounces the religion of Islam.

Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, a.k.a. ISIS

As previously mentioned, “ISIS” popped up in name after the militant group took territory in Syria. According to Google search trends (see above), it’s the term that people most widely use to identify the group.

“Al-Sham” is the historically Arab phrase for Greater Syria. There is some debate over whether “al-Sham” accurately describes the territory Islamic State inhabits, which brings us to …

Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, a.k.a. ISIL

The old English and French name for “al-Sham” is “Levant” (PRI has an excellent rundown of the history of both terms). “Levant” describes a territory that extends beyond Syria. It’s also the “L” in “ISIL” — President Barack Obama’s preferred term.

The White House has not made an official statement on their reasoning for using “ISIL,” but some have suggested that the president’s choice is due to the fact that the second “S” in “ISIS” can stand for “Syria.”

DAIISH, a.k.a. ‘Daesh’ (alternate spelling, ‘Da’ish’)

The group’s full Arabic name is al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham. The acronym, DAIISH, is commonly pronounced “Daesh.” Take a look back at the Google trends graphic above and you’ll see that “Daesh” is the least go-to colloquial phrase.

“Daesh” sounds similar to the Arabic word “dahes,” which, according to Boston Globe writer Zeba Khan, can translate to derogatory phrases like “trample down and crush” and “a bigot who imposes his view on others.” It’s for that insulting translation that Islamic State group has rejected the term.

According to France 24, Iranian and Arabic media first used the phrase in April 2013. France’s Hollande and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry believe it to be the most accurate term for the group. And most recently, hacktivist group Anonymous used it in their declaration of war on the militant group.

For more on Islamic State group’s history, listen to P.J. Tobia’s “Shortwave” podcast and read the Council of Foreign Relations’ backgrounder.