If You Pronounce GIF with a Hard G, You Must Be New to the Internet

The New York Times won't resolve the GIF pronunciation debate. But the war is won, even if the battle ensues. GIF is pronounced with a soft G, and if you think otherwise, you are wrong.

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It didn't require the imprimatur of The New York Times to resolve the GIF pronunciation debate, nor will the paper's assertion on Tuesday actually resolve it. But the war is won, even if the battle ensues. GIF is pronounced with a soft G, and if you think otherwise, you are wrong.

For most readers, the Times' aside in its profile of Deadspin.com's go-to GIF artist will be informative. "A GIF, pronounced jif, is a compressed image file format invented in 1987," reporter Sarah Lyall writes. This word that many Times readers may only just be becoming familiar with has its pronunciation included, right there, for their edification. Helpful.

But of course there was fury online, among those for whom pronunciation is an important matter (including yours truly).

And so on. But the thing is? The Times is right.

The first GIF I ever made, which, lamentably, isn't currently online, was of breakdancers. (It was sort of like the image at left, which is from this great YouTube video.) I somehow acquired a record from the 1980s that contained beats for kids to learn how to breakdance, accompanied by a poster that showed the proper moves. How to body pop. How to top-rock. The instructions were a series of photos showing body positions; I scanned those, brought them into Photoshop 3 or 4, and animated them. GIF'd.

The reason I tell this story is that I did this in 1996 or 1997, in case the reference to records and Photoshop 4 doesn't make that clear. I have been creating and talking about GIFs for years, because I am old and lame.

But that experience offers insight. I worked at Adobe Systems, makers of Photoshop, from 2000 to 2002 as a designer. While there, we talked about web design and image creation and GIFs, and no one ever pronounced the word with a hard G (as in "gift" versus "gist"). I worked with Cisco Systems on a web design curriculum; no one there pronounced the word with a hard G either. And for good reason: the man that invented the compression technology behind the image format at Compuserve in 1987 is adamant. "It's pronounced like 'jif'," Steve Wilhite states. "Period. The end. That's final. End of story." There was never any question of how GIF was pronounced — or, at least, any fervent debate — until the last five years or so.

Why now? Because the resurgence of GIFs — a format ideal for conveying snippets of animation with relatively low bandwidth — meant that a lot more people were exposed to them. "In the last decade," Lyall continues, "the animated GIF has become popular." And with that increase in popularity, a lot of people are introduced to GIFs for the first time, which allowed mispronunciation to increase and spread.

Consider: Very few people have their first exposure (or even early exposure) to the word come through verbal communication. Usually, it's just reading the abbreviation (which stands for graphics interchange format) online. So if you had to guess how to pronounce it, a guess that it's a hard G isn't irrational, particularly since it is short for a phrase starting with "graphics." We do this all the time as we age — we read a word we're not familiar with and then guess how it's pronounced. That in and of itself is perfectly fine.

But what's not OK is to defend that mispronunciation in the face of countervailing evidence, any more than it would be to argue with your English teacher about how you pronounce another word you might have read and then mispronounced.

Language evolves, of course. The words created by William Shakespeare are almost certainly not pronounced today the way he pronounced them when his plays were drafted. But Shakespeare wasn't writing in 1987. And Shakespeare didn't go online to adamantly correct those who mispronounce "champion" or "lackluster."

I would not go so far as to say that pronouncing GIF with a hard G indicates your newness to the file format or exposes your ignorance. If others wish to do so, it is their right; perhaps those could become standard responses to the new generation of web users that stands adamantly by their error. (A generation, it's worth noting, that Choire Sicha and Tom Scocca, whose tweets are embedded above, are not members of. They should know better.)

Incidentally, the Times offers a citation for its pronunciation guideline: a May blog post reporting on an award given to the creator of the GIF. He insisted on clarifying one point in accepting that award.

“The Oxford English Dictionary accepts both pronunciations,” Mr. Wilhite said. “They are wrong. It is a soft ‘G,’ pronounced ‘jif.’ End of story.”

Wrestling GIF via thisisnoise4 on Tumblr. Shark via GIFMovie

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.