Iraq crisis: ISIS or ISIL – what’s in a transliterated name?

ABOVE: Millions of people have fled areas the conflict areas in northern Iraq and in some places there’s a scramble for basics, like food and gasoline. Foreign Editor Stuart Greer reports from Erbil, Iraq.

You consider yourself a pretty well-informed person. You read a wide range of articles on foreign affairs.

And you don’t know what to call the Sunni militants taking over wide swaths of Iraq.

Sometimes they’re called the Islamic State of Iraq in the Levant (ISIL). Or the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (all shortened to ISIS).

READ MORE: Iraq crisis: A look at ISIS’s propaganda machine

The Arabic name for the group is Al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham, whose acronym DAIISH isn’t used in English-language reporting.

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Many western officials – including Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, U.S. President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and the United Nations – use ISIL.

News outlets including CNN, the New York Times and BBC have been using ISIS, although BBC is calling the jihadist group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant but shortening it to ISIS.

“The final ‘S’ in the acronym ISIS stems from the Arabic word “al-Sham.” This can mean the Levant, Syria or even Damascus but in the context of the global jihad it refers to the Levant,” BBC explained in a post profiling the organization, which formed in 2006 and went on to become one of the principal groups fighting government forces (and rival rebel groups) in Syria’s civil war.

“The Washington Post has been referring to the organization as ISIS, shorthand for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. This is how most news organizations that operate in English began identifying the outfit when it emerged as a dangerous fighting force two years ago, launching terror strikes and carving out territory amid the Syrian civil war,” Washington Post foreign affairs writer Ishaan Tharoor wrote.

READ MORE: Iraqi soliders battle Sunni militants for third day over oil refinery

Global News, for its part, is using ISIS moving forward.

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“The group’s most influential presence is in Syria and Iraq,” said Ron Waksman, the Senior Director of Online, Current Affairs and Editorial Standards and Practices at Global News. “ISIS more clearly identifies for the audience the areas where the conflict has been raging and has spread. The Levant is not familiar to most people, though it is historically accurate.”

The Associated Press, meanwhile, believes ISIL is the most accurate translation of the group’s name and “reflects its aspirations to rule over a broad swath of the Middle East,” AP vice president and senior managing editor or international news John Daniszewski wrote.

The group’s ostensible goal is to establish a caliphate or Islamic state in Iraq and al-Sham, whose broadest geographic definition – which would include not only Syria but Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Cyprus, part of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and a small area of southern Turkey – is close to the now-defunct term “Levant.”

“Saying just ‘Iraq and Syria’ suggest incorrectly that the group’s aspiration are limited to these two present day countries,” AP standards editor Tom Kent argued.

Then again, given the Levant’s colonial origins, that likely isn’t a term the group would choose, either, the New York Times notes.

Quartz, a digital news outlet that has chosen to use ISIL, notes the same debate is happening in Spanish, German and Russian media.

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Still confused? It’s ok: So is everyone else.

With files from Anna Mehler Paperny

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