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Mind your language

Dot Wordsworth on language: Why do we call it ‘Islamic State’?

‘Islamic’ is debatable and so is ‘state’; yet the media drops the definite article

27 September 2014

8:00 AM

27 September 2014

8:00 AM

I’m puzzled by the dropping of the one part of the name of the Islamic State that seems certain. That it is Islamic, many dispute. That it is a state is just as unclear. But calling it the does not bestow honour upon it, any more than referring to the Third Reich meant agreement with its behaviour. But there’s all the difference between the Queen and Queen. The Islamic State is grammatically like the Irish Free State, the Orange Free State or the Bluegrass State (Kentucky). And yet the BBC commonly speaks of ‘Islamic State’ without the definite article, like Sinn Fein or Sheffield Wednesday.

In June I wrote here about the jihadist group’s good fortune in landing the English acronym Isis — easy to pronounce and remember. It stood for Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (‘al-Sham’ being a name for Greater Syria). Perhaps the government was moved by my congratulations to start referring to it as Isil (in which al-Sham is replaced by the Levant). The Americans had been calling it that, and I see that the Daily Telegraph has now changed to that transatlantic convention. Since then, the group has declared itself a caliphate, or rather the caliphate, since caliphs come in ones, like popes (though I don’t know if they can resign).


None of that explains the dropping of the the. After all, no one says Levant instead of the Levant. Nor is it justified by the Arabic name, which has an article in both parts: ad-Dawlah l-Islamiyyah. Of course, if any such proper name is used attributively, the definite article goes, as grammar demands: for example, ‘an Islamic State fighter’; ‘Islamic State territory’. That is true even in a phrase like ‘the Islamic State claim’. In that example, the definite article goes with claim. A parallel is ‘the Times crossword’, where the the belongs with crossword, not with Times. Hence it is not italicised in ordinary use. Pedants have tried to insist on ‘the The Times crossword’, but flesh is only so strong.

I walked past Isis House in Southwark the other day, on the site of which permission has been given for a 16-storey block. Now the name can continue with no unwelcome connotations of being like ‘al-Qa’eda House’.


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