Saturday, 28th November 2015
by Joshua Gaskell
The BBC continues to refer to ‘so-called Islamic State’ on the basis that Islamic State (not Daesh) is what the group calls itself, but that ‘used on its own the name Islamic State could suggest that such a state exists and such an interpretation is potentially misleading.’ (These are the words of Tony Hall’s letter to Rehman Chishti MP, who called for the BBC to stop using the name Islamic State. Lord Hall did not touch on whether, used on its own, the name could suggest that the group is Islamic or whether such an interpretation is or is not potentially misleading.)
Any decision about what to call the organisation will be a compromise; and so-called Islamic State, though clumsy and a little bet-hedging, seems a reasonable one. But the question of what so-called actually means here is interesting.
A history of the attributive use of the adjective by mean of three reference entries:
Called or designated by this name or term, but not properly entitled to it or correctly described by it. […] More recently, and now quite commonly (esp. in technical contexts), used merely to call attention to the description, without implication of incorrectness’. (Oxford English Dictionary)
[So-called] is traditionally used, often rather scornfully, before a name or description to signal doubt about whether the thing or person so described is entitled to the description, as in this so-called work of art. In more recent usage, and now quite commonly (especially in technical contexts), it is used merely to call attention to the description, without implying that it is incorrect, (e.g. the so–called ‘generation gap’) (Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage)
‘used to show that something or someone is commonly designated by the name or term specified […] used to express one’s view that such a name or term is inappropriate’. (Oxford Dictionary of English)
There’s a clear development:
- The entry in the OED, published in 1913, gives the primary definition of so-called as signalling that the name in question is an incorrect description of the thing in question. The more modern, neutral, technical definition is in a subordinate position (and smaller font as published).
- The 2015 edition of Fowler’s, clearly based on the OED entry, is conservative enough to keep the scornful meaning of so-called at the top. But it’s knowingly so, calling attention to this being how the term is ‘traditionally used’, thus giving more credence to the neutral definition that follows.
- Finally, the 2010 ODO, ‘focusing on English as it is used today’, switches the order of the definitions, giving (without reference to technical contexts) the primary definition of so-called as, ‘used to show that something or someone is commonly designated by the name or term specified’. (Funnily enough, this is closer to the original, predicative, neutral use of so called, which predates the attributive: ‘Called or designated by that name’ (OED).)
So in justifying its use of so-called Islamic State, the BBC has a fair amount of semantic wiggle room: if we take the OED as definitive, the term supports the ‘neither Islamic nor a state’ line; but if we prefer the more modern account of actual usage, so-called Islamic State simply refers to the thing ‘commonly designated by the name’ Islamic State, without implying that that is an incorrect description of it.