Tech Etymology: Animated GIF

More than two decades ago, in 1987, Compuserv developed the Graphics Interface Format, a file that allows users with incompatible PCs to exchange pictures. They dubbed it the GIF, pronounced with a soft-g, like Jif, the peanut butter. Since then, as the animated GIF has become a mainstay of Internet culture, GIF creators and watchers alike have debated the term's pronunciation. To some, a soft-g sound just doesn't make sense: The 'g' stands for 'graphic,' which nobody would deny, takes the hard-g sound. Shouldn't an acronym reflect the words it represents? Thus a hard-g should prevail; but that's not what its creators intended. So, which is it: GIF like a present or GIF like the lube?

Tech Etymology: a new series about where the field's neologisms come from.

"It's embarrassing because you don't know if it's Mr. Gick or Mr. Jick," lamented William Labov, a linguistics professor at the University of Pennsylvania. As Dr. Labov explained, in modern English, no hard and fast rule exists for the 'gi' combination. Some words take the hard sound, others take the soft sound -- it depends on the word's specific history. Compare gift and gin, for example -- same 'gi' combination, different 'gi' sound.

The divergence emerged because modern English pronunciation reflects a mixture of dialects. In Old English the g had two pronunciations: one with a 'j' sound, and the other with a 'y' sound. When 'g' proceeded 'i,' it would take the 'y' sound. No hard 'gi' sound existed until Scandinavians migrated to England, bringing the hard variant with them. As the dialects mixed, certain pronunciations, both hard and soft, stuck.

While linguists can trace a given word back to its roots, determining the accepted pronunciation for proper nouns -- especially newer ones -- is more difficult. For example, Dr. Labov's wife, also a linguist, (ironically) has an ambiguous name: Gillian. Many would say Jillian, but that's incorrect because she (or her parents) wanted it pronounced as hard-g Gillian.

In the case of GIF, the pronunciation depends on the term's creators, their intentions. "The people who formulated this new word, they decide," Dr. Labov explained. "People who only read it, they can only guess."

So what did the creators intend? All sources point to soft-g peanut butter Jif.

In the '80s, before the Internet was commonplace, CompuServe released a graphics display bulletin called CompuShow. In version 8.33 (fQ&A.DOC), the FAQ section on GIFs begins: "The GIF (Graphics Interchange Format), pronounced 'JIF,' was designed by CompuServe and the official specification released in June of 1987." In their very own document, the GIF's creators indicate their preference for the soft-j.

Another graphic files format FAQ sheds light on why the developers may have chosen this boggling pronunciation:

Choosy programmers choose "gif" or "jif"?

The pronunciation of "GIF" is specified in the GIF specification to be "jif", as in "jiffy", rather then "gif", which most people seem to prefer. This does seem strange because the "G" is from the word "Graphics" and not "Jraphics".

In a clever move, the designers payed homage to this classic peanut butter campaign -- "choosy moms choose Jif" -- with their punny pronunciation:

All of this to say that those of you who pronounce GIF with a hard-g shouldn't be embarrassed. Not only does the Oxford English Dictionary declare both pronunciations -- /gɪf/ (hard g) , /dʒɪf/ (soft g) -- correct, but as Dr. Labov's colleague, phonology expert Dr. Rolf Noyer, explained, "pronunciation is a matter of agreement between people." Language is constantly changing: If an overwhelming amount of people want to say GIF like gift, and an overwhelming amount of people accept and understand that pronunciation, the creators' intentions don't really matter.

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Rebecca Greenfield is a former staff writer at The Wire.

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