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‘ISIS’ vs. ‘ISIL’ vs. ‘Islamic State’: The political importance of a much-debated acronym

A Muslim woman releases a dove as a symbol of peace during a rally against the Islamic State group, in Jakarta, Indonesia, Friday, Sept. 5, 2014. The banner reads: "ISIS is not Islam's voice. Stop Killing journalist." (AP Photo/Tatan Syuflana)
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On Sunday, President Obama went on "Meet the Press" to talk with new host Chuck Todd. They talked at length about terrorism and the administration's plans to counter it, but they didn't couldn't quite agree on what to call the enemy.

"I'm preparing the country to make sure that we deal with a threat from ISIL," Obama said. ISIL stands for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Todd followed up with, "Obviously, if you're going to defeat ISIS, you have used very much stronger language." ISIS stands for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

Later, after the interview ended, Todd told his panel, "Obviously we refer to it at NBC News as ISIS. The Obama administration, president, says the word ISIL. The last S stands for Syria, the last L they don’t want to have stand for Syria." The insinuation is that the country Obama decided to stay out of last year is also his Voldemort, better left unnamed.

Many conservative news organizations agreed that the acronym was worth 1,000 words.

But as the Washington Post reported Tuesday, the White House has been discussing airstrikes in Syria. On Wednesday, Obama will give a prime-time address offering further insight into what is next as the United States prepares for some "offense" against the Islamic State (this is what the Post calls it, though previously we called it ISIS). In other words, Obama now has no choice but to mention Syria.

Many politicians and media organizations that have chosen ISIL rather than ISIS have said they went with the former as a paean to grammar. When you translate the Arabic name for the group of insurgents (Al-Dawla Al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham) into English, many argue that using "the Levant" (a.k.a. ISIL) to describe the region is most accurate -- as this WorldViews post from June explains.

Others have interpreted this acronym choice differently. Maureen Dowd wrote in an Aug. 9 column:

It’s a bit odd that the administration is using “the Levant,” given that it conjures up a colonial association from the early 20th century, when Britain and France drew their maps, carving up Mesopotamia guided by economic gain rather than tribal allegiances. Unless it’s a nostalgic nod to a time when puppets were more malleable and grateful to their imperial overlords.

The White House has often faced an army of deconstructionists whenever words come out of Obama's mouth -- and even when they don't -- and it seems a bit excessive to infer an entire foreign policy from an acronym. But politicians and media organizations all over have struggled with what to call this group of Sunni insurgents, and how their choice would be interpreted.

In the Capitol on Tuesday morning, House Democrats decided after a long debate that they too would call the extremist group ISIL -- partly because ISIS was a name that first belonged to a goddess, and then to thousands of women who took said goddess's name, before a terrorist group claimed it. As Max Fisher at Vox reported last week, many women named Isis have been aggravated by the acronym favored by most people discussing the Islamic State. Isis Martinez, a woman in Miami, has been gathering signatures for a petition titled, "Thousands of Women are Named Isis, Please Petition the Media to Use the Accurate Acronym ISIL." She has 138 signatures.

And last week, an app called Isis Wallet changed its name to Softcard. "We have no interest in sharing a name with a group whose name has become synonymous with violence, and our hearts go out to those who are suffering,” it announced, as noted by Bloomberg Businessweek. ISIL might sound odd, which is why it has the virtue of not already being taken by other people. The Obama administration has been clear that the Sunni insurgents represent a serious threat, and if the group sounds like nothing you've ever heard before, both in deed and name, it's probably easier to make that sink in.

The Levant also denotes a far larger region than just Iraq and Syria. By calling the group ISIL instead of ISIS, it implies that the group is not only a serious threat, it is a large one too.

Going back to Congress: Even before House Democrats decided to go with ISIL, there was an evident partisan split on Congress on how legislators decided to refer to the group, as shown by data collected by the Sunlight Foundation.

Out of all the mentions of ISIS that have occurred during floor speeches, 86 percent have come from Republicans. Fifty-four percent of ISIL mentions have come from Democrats. However, this split could be explained by many other things -- Republicans out-talking Democrats on the Islamic State overall or the fact that Congress has had the same difficulties settling on a name as the media has.

While the government has been choosing between ISIS and ISIL, many news organizations have been making similar decisions in their style guides. Last month, the Washington Post decided to refer to the group as the Islamic State, after the group itself declared that its ambitions outstripped Iraq and Greater Syria. Several other news organizations have also made the switch, including the Associated Press, as Poynter reported.

About a month ago ISIL changed its name, so our approach is to refer to them on first reference simply as “Islamic militants,” “jihadi fighters,” “the leading Islamic militant group fighting in Iraq (Syria), etc.” On second reference, something like “the group, which calls itself the Islamic State,” with “group” helping to make clear that it is not an internationally recognized state.

The ISIL-ISIS debate continues in large part because that the Islamic State is not internationally recognized, and officials wouldn't want to recognize the existence of a state that remains an ambition of a group they hope to extinguish.

Regardless of the reasoning, the fact that the Islamic State suffers so many synonyms has probably done little more than confuse the public, which has only figured out who these Sunni insurgents are very recently. A NBC/Wall Street Journal poll from July asking for opinions on the United States' actions against the group had 40 percent of respondents saying they didn't know enough to have an opinion. A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll shows that people now seem much more informed, but no polling exists testing public opinion on ISIL or the Islamic State.

The lesson: This situation is moving so fast -- the many explainers written about ISIS v. ISIL in June are already a few steps behind -- and the Islamic State's identity is changing so rapidly that it seems futile to treat acronyms as a magnifying glass.

However, it also isn't surprising. Given the White House's caution in explaining its thinking on how to deal with the Sunni insurgents, the media hasn't had much to parse beside the one letter that differentiates the administration from many of the news outlets that cover it.

This post has been updated.