How Translation Can Give Rise to Abbreviation Confusion

Last Updated On: June 19, 2017


Abbreviation ConfusionMuch in the news over the last year or so is the violent jihadist group known variously by the abbreviations ISIS and ISIL. The fact that there are two main abbreviations for the group can be very confusing, not just for the average man or woman in the street, but for politicians and commentators too, who may even think there are two separate groups.

Such confusion over abbreviations that have been translated is common when the original name may or may not even be abbreviated and in fact the abbreviation which becomes familiar is the translation into English. ISIS and ISIL, in this particular case, are both correctly used abbreviations in English of the same group and it is likely that as long as this group continues to function and be of importance politically in the Middle East we will continue to hear both versions.


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The acronym ISIL comes from document translation of the Arabic term that literally means “The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant”. The Levant is the old name given to the part of the Middle East now better known as the modern states of Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Syria. The same area is also called in Arabic “Greater Syria”, hence the translation ISIS, which means “The Islamic State of Iraq and (greater) Syria”. The two abbreviations as far as Arabic scholars are concerned are both the same, but the translated acronyms do seem as if they refer to two different groups.

The acronym confusion is perpetuated to some extent by the use of different abbreviations by particular foreign bodies. In the USA, for instance, President Obama and the US Government continue to use the acronym ISIL, while the US media generally prefers the use of ISIS.

ISIS / ISIL has not exactly helped clear up the confusion. In fact, they have made things even murkier by introducing their new name “caliphate”. The caliph is supposed to be a direct descendant of Mohammed and a caliphate is a theoretical state in which the caliph has ultimate authority. This means that the group now refers to itself as the “Islamic State” or, to abbreviate it, IS.

This is a bit too much for many others. Many Muslims, for instance, refuse to acknowledge the use of this particular term and its abbreviation and so do many politicians including President Obama as well as the United Nations, which prefer to use ISIL.

ISIL, ISIS and IS, they are one and the same!

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