How do you pronounce GIF? Does it matter?

December 12, 2012

When Oxford Dictionaries named the acronym GIF (graphics interchange format) as their US word of the year (in its verb use), debates resurfaced over its correct pronunciation. The short answer is that both /gɪf/ and /dʒɪf/ are fine – you can say GIF with the hard g of gift or the soft g of gin. Or you can say the letters: “gee eye eff”.

Some people insist on soft-g GIF, as in “jif”. They say it’s “up to the creators”, and “jif” is what the format’s inventors indicated. But this presumes a non-existent authority: the creators don’t get to lay down a planet-wide law, nor does anyone on their behalf. Pronunciation develops through general agreement – it’s up to everyone who uses the term – and most people seem to prefer hard-g GIF.

Philosoraptor meme - Is it 'gif' or 'gif'Gi- is inherently ambiguous, pronunciation-wise. We have hard-g gift, gills, giddy, give and giggles, soft-g gin, giblets, Gilly, giant and gist.* (There’s a Scandinavian flavour to the hard-g set.) So it’s not surprising the pronunciation of a new gi- term would split this way. But there aren’t many gif- words apart from gift, so it’s not surprising either that hard-g GIF predominates. The g‘s origin in graphics is another factor in its favour.

But there’s no question both are acceptable: Oxford Dictionaries sanction both, as do Merriam-Webster and the American Heritage Dictionary, each of them based on extensive data of what people say. There is more than one right way – there often is – and declaring otherwise doesn’t make it otherwise.

Soft-g GIF may gradually fade, or it may retain minor currency. A continued split would not be a problem. Millions of people pronounce schedule with a sh- sound; other millions go with sk-. Communication is roomy enough to contain such discrepancies, and if confusion arises people are smart and imaginative enough to figure it out. Though I can’t speak for Philosoraptor.

Out of curiosity, how do you pronounce GIF? Feel free to vote in this poll or to add your thoughts below.

*

* In phonetics, /g/ is a voiced velar stop and /dʒ/ is a voiced palato-alveolar affricate.


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