There’s nothing we like better than to be able to write about a totally non-controversial subject. It is difficult to express our joy when the matter is so clear and accepted that we can send a three-paragraph article off to press and spend the rest of the day binge-watching Doctor Who.
The primary reason we find it difficult to express that joy is because we have yet to experience it. When a question came in from a reader, asking us to weigh in on how to pronounce GIF, we hoped we had stumbled upon the elusive quick-answer response, only to see our dreams crash faster than an antiquated computer with an overloaded graphics card.
A GIF, for those who may be wondering, is an acronym for the Graphics Interchange Format. It is a way to present brief animated images by use of a technology that can be explained with words that probably carry some sort of meaning to the people who understand that sort of thing. The GIF was developed by a team led by computer scientist Steve Wilhite and saw its debut on June 15, 1987.
The following is an example of a GIF. It is also the only Doctor Who that we got to see because it turns out that finding consensus on how to pronounce GIF is nearly as complex as getting a 1950s police call box to transcend time and space.
The controversy exists between two well-established camps: those who think it should be pronounced with a hard G, as in ”gift” without the final letter, and those who prefer the soft G, like the first syllable of ”jiffy” (which is a specific unit of measurement, by the way).
Both sides make good arguments. Those on the hard-G side point to the fact that the G represents the word ”graphics.” You wouldn’t pronounce that word with a soft G, would you? Doing so would make “Graphics Interchange Format” sound like something that would appear in the laboratory of Jurassic Park.
The advocates for the soft-G pronunciation insist that the “J” sound simply sounds better to the ear. They also discount the G=graphics argument, noting that many acronyms abandon the representative word’s pronunciation. The accepted pronunciation of “NASA,” for example, is “Nah-sah.” The second A, however, stands for “Aeronautics,” which uses an “ay” sound. No one says “Nay-sah,” though. Likewise, the “U” in “SCUBA” is pronounced as if we were talking about the animated dog Scooby Doo. The word itself is an acronym for “self-contained underwater breathing apparatus.” “Underwater” uses an “uh” sound, and that should make “SCUBA” sound like “Skub-ah.”
Which side is right? If only it were as simple as looking up a standard rule of pronunciation. This is the English language, however. Trying to find a clear answer about English is like asking a lawyer a question. What you get is, “It depends.”
In English, there is no general rule for how the letter sequence “gi” is to be pronounced. Words like “gift” trigger a hard G, while “gin” uses the soft form. Linguist Michael Dow analyzed 269 words with “g” and found that pronunciations were almost evenly split between the two forms. When expanding the parameters of his study to 105 words that had “gi” somewhere, the breakdown showed 68 using the soft g form and 37 using the hard g.
One would think the debate would be ended by the guy who was responsible for creating (and naming) the thing in the first place. In 2013, Steve Wilhite received the Webby Award and used the occasion to express his opinion. He declared, quite simply, “It’s pronounced ‘JIF’.”
Wilhite’s opinion is informative, of course, but certainly not dispositive. If the inventor of a product had the final say in what it was called, we’d be using “Baby Gays” today instead of Q-tips, and we’d be clasp-locking our pants instead of zipping them.
Someone else has a vested interest in the word — or at least how it is pronounced. The J.M. Smucker Company, producers of Jif peanut butter, jumped into the debate and declared that there’s only one Jif. It launched a campaign to make sure that the soft-g use of the word would only make people think of their product. The company teamed up with GIF-based website GIPHY to come up with a limited-edition jar in Jif’s trademark packaging, but labeled “Gif.” This led to some confusion, however, with some thinking that this implied that the two words were interchangeable.
What better way to resolve a controversial subject than by making it political? That’s what happened in 2013 when President Barack Obama entered the fray. The White House announced on its Tumblr page that it would soon be producing GIFs, using the hard-G form of the word. The next year, Obama doubled down on this, declaring his official position on the subject.
With English, the public is the ultimate arbiter. A survey in 2014 showed that 54% of Americans agreed with the president and preferred the hard-G use. Sadly, the data does not report the political affiliation of those who were polled, so we can’t say whether the preferred pronunciation can be gaged by which party happens to be occupying the White House.
Before ending this discussion, we should also point out that there is a third camp, and it insists upon enunciating each letter, so the acronym becomes the three-syllable ”gee-eye-eff.” With all due respect to those who hold to this view, we reject it out of hand. That opens the door to doing the same thing with all acronyms. Can you imagine having to talk about ”En-Ay-Tee-Oh” instead of ”NATO,” or ”You-En-Ee-Es-See-Oh) instead of ”UNESCO”? For that matter, we’d have to discard the easy ”ZIP” code for ”Zee-Eye-Pee” and ”SONAR” for ”Es-Oh-En-Ay-Are”.
What is our conclusion? We present it, appropriately, with a GIF: