ISIS does not want to be called Daesh. The group considers the acronym insulting and dismissive. An increasing number of its opponents do not want it to be called the “Islamic State.” They fear that this shorthand reifies the terrorist group’s claims to be a legitimate government.
The debate reminds us that names have power.
Avid readers of fairy tales have always known this. Calling Rumpelstiltskin by his real name banishes him and foils his baby-stealing plans. Speaking your name to a witch or wizard can give them power over you. Patrick Rothfuss’s wildly popular Kingkiller Chronicles contains a magic system where learning the name of an element — like the wind — gives a person magical control over it. And everyone knows what happens when you say Beetlejuice’s name three times.
Converts to new religions often take new names to honor the transformation. We mark significant passages in our lives — birth, marriage, death — with new names. Miss Smith becomes Mrs. Jones. Junior becomes Senior when Senior dies. There’s even an old Jewish tradition that says that, in times of serious illness, one should take a new name in order to fool the Angel of Death.
Whether we believe in magic or religion or not, we feel the power of names throughout our lives. Who didn’t go through a childhood phase of wanting a different name? I was wildly jealous of Catholic friends who got to choose confirmation names. A college friend declared that her first day in college was “time to get a nickname” and had us all brainstorm until she found one she liked. It stuck for the whole four years, and long after. Other college friends made legal name changes to more accurately reflect their cultures or their lives. As an adult, I declined to change my name when I got married because I wanted to hold onto myself. I thought for months about choosing my daughters’ names.
I’m a strong advocate of calling people what they like to be called. My kids try on nicknames like I try on jewelry — experimenting with their identities from day to day and solemnly explaining that from now on, they shall answer to nothing other than “Pumpernickel,” or that “Abby” is now verboten and “Abigail” is in favor. I happily acquiesce in all the changes as they figure out who they are. And I love the new nicknames they create for me. (The latest is “Bob,” because that’s what it sounds like when you say “Mom” with a head cold.)
I think, too, that it is important to use the names that transgendered individuals have chosen for themselves, and the pronouns that reflect their gender — even if it’s an awkward or hard-to-remember change for me. The same goes for other communities based on culture, race, religion, or other common identity. At a bare minimum, as we go through the world, we should have the liberty to say peacefully who we are. And it is a small thing for us to do, generally, to give the respect and the acknowledgement that comes with using someone’s requested name.
But ISIS, or Daesh, is another matter entirely.
It is too late to treat Daesh as Yoko Ono requested that John Lennon’s assassin be treated — by denying it the dignity of a name we deign to speak aloud. We have done nothing but name it and talk about it and publicize its actions. It is probably inappropriate for a family publication to suggest that we might take the Wonderella approach to express our contempt. But we certainly can use an accurate translation of the name they have chosen and turn it into a mildly insulting acronym.
Apparently, it bugs them.
Sarah Skwire is the poetry editor of the Freeman and a senior fellow at Liberty Fund, Inc. She is a poet and author of the writing textbook Writing with a Thesis. She is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.