Tuesday, September 23, 2014

ISIL/ISIS : update to the pronunciation wars

In our extended essay on the nomenclature of what is now the Islamic State, a.k.a. the Caliphate,

we recommended the pronunciation “EYE-sill” for ISIL.  The reasoning is:  by analogy with “EYE-sis” for ISIS.   And ISIS is mostly so pronounced, by the irrelevant reason that it vaguely reminds people of the Egyptian goddess so named and thus enunciated.   Here she is, in case you would like to worship her:

Horus could not believe his good fortune

In point of fact, a great many people, in and around the USG -- among those sufficiently clued in to the pre-Media storyline to call the group ISIL to begin with, vice TV’s ISIS -- actually spell it out letter by letter instead of pronouncing it as a made-up word:  EYE ESS EYE ELL.   Which would be fine; except that, as an acronym becomes ever more familiar (as, alas, ISIL has perforce become), it tends to acquire a convenient version for speech.


Now, this morning, the CENTCOM general briefing the airstrikes in Syria, never said EYE-sill;  he either spelled it out, or said “ISS’l”, or even (once, if my ears did not deceive me), “IZZ’l” -- a version that deserves to fizzle.  Indeed, I’ll drum in the lesson with a mnemonic jingle:

If you say Eye Ess Eye Ell
you won’t go to Heaven (though you won’t go to Hell).
Whoso says ISS’l
grasps a fistful of thistle.
And if you say IZZ’l
on your picnic it’ll drizzle.
But if you say EYE-s’l
then something nice’ll
happen 2  U.

I used to work for the Merriam-Webster dictionary company;  and one of my hats was Editor of Pronunciation.   “Merriam” (as its employees called it -- though some pronounced it “Miriam”;  “Webster’s” exoterically)  had a long tradition, beginning with the Third International Unabridged, of minute microattention to subphonemic pointless little finicky de-minimis-non-curat variant pronunciations.   These were slimmed down somewhat for the abridged and streamlined Collegiate series, but they still showed more variants than any other dictionary.   The philosophy behind this was supposed to be empiricist/non-judgmental/democratic,  Who Are We to say how anything should be pronounced?   And my answer is, We’re the frigging dictionary, dammit, we are what people turn to  to learn how to pronounce something.    A certain amount of fur flew  during my tenure.

Incidentally:  A big reason for continuing the profusion of variants was that it allowed the pronunciation editor to goof off, simply jotting down various ways the word might be pronounced, without finding out which was commonest among people who knew what they were talking about.  I know that this is true because Merriam keeps vast card-files of attestations, and when I’d check, I’d find absolutely no backing for some published variants:  the guy had just made them up.   (He had, in fact, been fired, shortly before I applied for what had been advertised as the Editor of Etymology position.   So I wound up with both roles.)


  1. Why do the French like pronouncing stuff à l'originale? (and how would the French say that?) The other example that comes to mind is Shoah.

  2. I was searching the web to find out why the President says "ISIL" whilst everybody at CBS was saying "ISIS." Thank you very much for the enlightening and entertaining read! And ISIL it is!