Way back in 1987, four years before the World Wide Web was born, developer Steve Wilhite and his team at CompuServe came up with everyone’s favorite filetype: the Graphics Interchange Format aka the GIF. While very few of us will argue about the awesomeness this file type, which allows us to share silly little short animations, a surprising number of us have strong—and opposing—opinions on how to pronounce the acronym of this ubiquitous file type. Is it a hard G like “graphics”, or is it a soft G like the word “giraffe”?
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Before I answer this polarizing question, let me just say this: I recognize that many of us do, in fact, have a firm opinion on this subject (myself included). But, if you really take this subject as anything other than an entertaining exercise in rhetoric, you need to get professional help. So, without further ado, let me tell you the proper (if not grammatically correct) way to pronounce GIF—it’s a soft G like JIF. Get over it, I have.
How did I come to this insightful conclusion? Great question. The answer is that somebody told me it was pronounced with a soft G and I, in turn, did my research. Turns out they were right. I assure you that, since the dawn of the digital age, I like most of you, pronounced GIF with a hard G. It only makes perfect sense, right? But another thing that only makes perfect sense is the notion that people who name things are afforded a certain amount of creative license when it comes to spelling and pronunciation and it’s our duty to respect that. You wouldn’t purposely mispronounce someone’s name because you’ve decided that the spelling of that name dictates a different pronunciation, would you? Of course not. That would not only be presumptive but flat out rude.
No, not that Jif.
This brings me to my central point: GIF is pronounced like JIF simply because Steve Wilhite, the creator and rightful namer of the file type, says so—and for (almost) no other reason. In fact, he deliberately mirrored the pronunciation of the popular peanut butter brand so he could borrow from their famous tagline and proclaim that “choosy developers prefer GIF”. Do I like that GIF is pronounced with a soft G? Do I think Steve Wilhite’s borrowed tagline is as cute as he invariably thinks it is? The answer is no on both accounts, but I do respect his right to dictate the pronunciation of his creation, no matter how corny the reason.
Still not convinced are you? While it’s easy to argue for the hard G pronunciation of GIF, let me offer up some logical reasons why the soft G can make sense, even outside of Steve Wilhite’s corny reasoning. Let’s start with the case of another popular file type: the Joint Photographic Experts Group or JPEG file. As you can plainly see, the P in JPEG stands for Photographic—with a Ph letter combination pronounced like an F. If you favor the hard G pronunciation of GIF because Graphics is pronounced with a hard G, you then must also—by logical extension—be a proponent of pronouncing JPEG as Jay-Feg rather than the accepted pronunciation of Jay-Peg. Not a savory prospect is it? What’s more, the G in words using the hard G pronunciation are generally followed by an A, O or U while the G in words using soft G word pronunciation are usually followed by an I, E or Y. As you can see, the G in GIF is followed by an I. Is this a particularly compelling argument for the soft G pronunciation considering the English language’s propensity for eschewing hard-and-fast rules? Of course not, but it does suggest a grammatically congruent reason for allowing the soft G pronunciation into your heart.
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I get it, you’ve been pronouncing GIF with a hard G since you became aware of the file type. The soft G pronunciation sounds weird, it’s going to sound even weirder coming out of your own mouth. I know it’s going to be difficult training yourself to the proper pronunciation. I had trouble quitting cigarettes, but I did. I had trouble training myself to say RBI rather than RBIs (it’s RBI: runs batted in, not RBIs: runs batted ins—deal with it old-timers). And, it was weird pronouncing GIF with a soft G at first, but after years of doing so the hard G pronunciation now sounds strange to me. In fact, it just sounds wrong. It’s often said that proponents of the soft G pronunciation of GIF are stuck-up relics (as the hard G pronunciation is certainly the future of GIF), but I prefer to think of us as simply respectful of the rights of others. Sadly, perhaps that does make me a relic.