You can pronounce “GIF” any way you like

An impressively silly debate resumed this week over the “correct” pronunciation of GIF. Steve Wilhite, who invented the format, prefers “jif”, and at the recent Webby Awards he shared this opinion (tongue presumably in cheek) through a projected GIF set to Richard Strauss.*

It's pronounced 'jif' not 'gif' - Steve Wilhite at 2013 Webby Awards

Mr Wilhite knows the OED accepts both common pronunciations, hard-g /gɪf/ as in gift and soft-g /dʒɪf/ as in gist. (As do other dictionaries and all right-thinking people.) But the lexicographers, he told the New York Times, “are wrong. It is a soft ‘G,’ pronounced ‘jif.’ End of story.”

End of story? Well, no. This is English: it’s messy. It misbehaves.

I’ve written about the pronunciation of GIF before, but a lot of people are still confused about it. There’s no need to be. Wilhite may have invented the GIF but he can’t decide its pronunciation for everyone. Each of us gets to choose how we say a new word, and most people say GIF with a hard g – unsurprisingly, given the sound’s dominance in English words containing the letter.

Language being democratic, hard-g /gɪf/ is therefore the dominant usage. But “jif” is a significant variant, equally standard and clearly preferred by some communities. A few people say the letters “gee eye eff” (5.4% in my poll), and there’s no one to stop you calling it “geef”, “cif”, “jife”, even (ermahgerd) “gerf”, or “Gruffalo” or “Gorgonzola” if the mood takes you. Some of these might raise eyebrows, or hinder comprehensibility, but they won’t get you arrested.

Condescending Wonka - correct pronunciation of GIF - Stan Carey via quickmemeAs I said on Twitter, the fuss over GIF’s “correct” pronunciation is partly a result of people thinking there can or should be just one right way. This may be a legacy of standardisation, which privileged certain usages over others, often for wholly arbitrary reasons. The prestige and propriety associated with Usage 1 can give rise to the impression that Usage 2 is necessarily inferior. Not so. If you’ve been universalising your biases, you can stop now.

Despite the wishes and fiats of self-appointed regulators, linguistic variation is perfectly fine. Language is big and stretchy; it contains multitudes and embraces variety, even if some of its users don’t. What little confusion might arise over the pronunciation of GIF will not hurt anyone or bring civilisation to its knees. More to the point, a preference for “gif” or “jif” does not imply someone’s wrongness, stupidity, or moral deficiency.

Is this the last word on GIF? Hardly. As long as a language is alive, there is no last word. Maybe GIF in the future will rhyme with ref. In the meantime, you don’t have to adopt the inventor’s preference. He did us a great technical service, but he’s not the boss of English. You’re the boss of your own English. GIF is in the public domain: say it any way you want.

*

* Have you heard the Portsmouth Sinfonia’s rendition? My favourite.

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32 Responses to You can pronounce “GIF” any way you like

  1. Kyle Lenovo says:

    Alas, the cleaning product ‘Jif’ in Europe became ‘Cif’, for reasons best known to the manufacturers -something to do with more ‘international appeal’.
    If soft-G .gif files become .theef files in Spain/Mexico or .xeef files if ‘hard’ G is preferred…?!

  2. Joy says:

    LOL! This is even better than the fight over different from and different than! I’m a hard-G GIF person, myself.

    But then what to make of the strange people who refer to “you are ells” as “earls?”

  3. Alina says:

    Soft-G person here. But I love the “Gorgonzola” suggestion. I might try it just for fun and see the reactions of others.

  4. John Cowan says:

    URLs have always been noblemen to me, though I admit to “you are I”.

  5. Stan says:

    Kyle: All the more reason to let people say it however they want. Sufficient consensus will emerge, if not globally then within user groups.

    Joy: Mother Jones calls it “the most absurd religious war in geek history”. I’m hard-g too, but I lack the urge to convert or condemn people who aren’t.

    Alina: I can see it catching on, especially among cheese enthusiasts.

    John: It’s always been boring old “you or ell(s)” for me, but I might try “yourls” for a while.

  6. Alina says:

    Stan: What can I say, I am a cheese enthusiast.
    John: Luckily I’ve never come across anyone who pronounces URLs as “earls”. I think I would have died laughing. I am laughing right now just imagining how funny (and strange) that would sound. “Earls” :)

  7. As GIF is an acronym, I prefer to use the “hard g” of Graphics. That’s my logic and I’m sticking with it. :)

  8. Barney says:

    @Joy can you point me to a good overview of why that’s a fallacy? “Different than” is grammatical nonsense to me. X can be _more_ different than Y, but it can’t be different than it. Conversely, X can’t be more hotter than Y, but it can be hotter than it. In that way different is different to hot.

    • Joy says:

      Barney, the short answer – because it is standard English to more than three hundred million native speakers of the language.

      If you want any more on the subject, go read the two years of argument about it elsewhere on this blog, I’m certainly not going into it yet again here!

  9. Sean J. says:

    Umm, am I having a Déjà vu?

  10. Stan says:

    bambusa: It’s pretty solid logic, though others apply logic to arrive at a different conclusion.

    Barney: One person’s “grammatical nonsense” is another’s dialectal norm. As Joy said, different than is standard in US English; see my post on different from/than/to for more discussion.

    Sean: I think you asked me that before.

  11. […] Stan Carey argues that “You can pronounce “GIF” any way you like,” and echoes another linguist’s pronouncement from the early 1950s, “Leave your […]

  12. Stan: re “You or el”, I was long puzzled by the Irish pronunciation of the broadcaster RTE as (to my ears) “Or Tee Eee”, not “Are Tee Eee”, and it took me a long time to realise that the letter R, as a letter, was pronounced “Or” in Hibernian English.

    • Joy says:

      Thanks, Martyn – I was wondering about that too. Thought Stan was making some kind of curious joke, saying “or” instead of “are”!

  13. Stan says:

    Jean: Thank you; that’s very kind. I too enjoyed the Slate article on babies’ pointing.

    Martyn, Joy: Until you said that, it hadn’t occurred to me that it might cause confusion. Yes, R is /ɑr/ “or” in my dialect.

  14. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Bottom-line… ‘It’s the ‘GIF’ that keeps on giving.’ (Groan)

    • Stan says:

      Alex: And jiving.

      • alexmccrae1546 says:

        Touché Stan!

        At first blush your “jiving” threw me off.

        The Bee Gees’ (or Bee Jees ?) hit number “Jive Talk” for some odd reason immediately came to mind.

        But then I quickly came to my senses, recalling the whole pronunciation of the “G” in “GIF” meat-of-your-article debate; then cluing into your sly humor, and just having a good wee chuckle.

        Interestingly, the brainiac that actually came up with the term “GIF” apparently prefers the soft “G” version, pronouncing “GiF”, as he’s pointed out from its origin, like the popular brand of peanut butter… Jif.*

        *Sorry if someone already mentioned the “Jif” peanut butter homophonic connection.

      • Joy says:

        No, Stan, that would be jivving!

  15. alexmccrae1546 says:

    @Joy

    Geez (or Jeez?)… give our blogmeister Stan a bit of a break, eh. “Jivving”, indeed.

    (Interesting that good old Spellcheck accepts “jiving”, but not your “jivving” w/ the double “v”s. But then I guess Spellcheck isn’t to be taken as the be-all-end-all authority.)

  16. […] pronounce you … Wait, how do I pronounce you? steps back from the recent pavlova palaver over the pronunciation of GIF, to look at other examples of phonological confusion and controversy – and do we place the stress […]

  17. canon says:

    If we can simply pronounce something any way we want, and ignore the creator’s and namer’s decision, I have decided to pronounce your name as Stain, like dirty stain on my kitchen floor, instead of stan as in stand. Because that’s okay right?

  18. […] GIF, Steve Wilhite, told us the proper way to pronounce the acronym, while Stan Carey assured as we can pronounce it however we like, and also gave a reactive defense of the word, […]

  19. Haha! Awesome post! Love the Willy Wonka GIF!

    Cheers!

  20. […] vs. soft g is a perennial issue; I’ve already written about the great gif debate, twice. But with gif (and doge) there are sound arguments for various pronunciations. Imgur, with its […]

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