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.*
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.
As 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.