- Paul Anthony Jones
(n.) a brief animated image file, played as a loop
Last weekend the fact that the inventor of the GIF prefers that it be pronounced “jiff” rather than “giff” cropped up on HH.
That led to quite a debate about “giffs”, “jiffs” and “G-I-Fs”, and whether or not the inventor of something has any right to tell people how it should be pronounced. (SPOILER ALERT: They don’t.) We posted a quick survey over on Twitter to test the “giff” vs. “jiff” waters, and more than 4,000 votes later, hard-g “giff” swept to victory with a resounding 78%.
But as some of you clever, clever people pointed out on Twitter, there’s more to this story than meets the eye. Why does the GIF’s inventor prefer “jiff”? And why, despite that fact, do so many people still prefer “giff”?
The GIF was invented by American computer programmer Steve Wilhite. Looking to produce a new type of file that allowed images to be shared over the grindingly slow dial-up speeds of the time, Wilhite developed a low-resolution “graphics interchange format”, and shared the first GIF—a grainy picture of an aeroplane—via email in 1987. The format quickly took off, and remains a cornerstone of online culture: the US arm of Oxford Dictionaries chose GIF as their Word of the Year in 2012, and for his contribution to our online lives Wilhite was awarded the Lifetime Achievement prize at the Webby Awards in 2013.
But it was during Wilhite’s development of the very first GIFs that a joke emerged that would dictate how GIF itself would be pronounced.
For anyone unaware of American peanut butter brands (or for anyone who thinks peanut butter is the devil’s spread, and deserves no place in the human diet), Jif is a popular peanut butter brand sold under the slogan “Choosy Moms Choose Jif”. Among Wilhite’s colleagues, a gag emerged that “choosy” computer programmers “choose GIF” as their preferred image format—and, alongside the gag, came the soft-g “jiff”.
But as the GIF format became better known, a hard-g pronunciation—inspired by comparable words like gift and gilt—began to win through. So although Wilhite’s preferred soft-g GIF certainly has its supporters today (including 19% of those in our Twitter poll), the hard-g GIF is now the more dominant form.
But as we’ve said before, and will doubtless say again, no one owns the English language, and it’s really no one’s business to tell people how to use it. As a result, most dictionaries today list both “giff” and “jiff” as acceptable pronunciations of GIF—in much the same way that there are rivalling pronunciations of words like schedule and scone. That’s a fact even Wilhite himself admitted in an interview with the New York Times in 2013—albeit, somewhat grudgingly.
“The Oxford English Dictionary accepts both pronunciations,” he reportedly commented, before adding, “they are wrong. It is a soft g, pronounced ‘jiff.’ End of story.”
This is presumably a debate that is going to run on for quite some time.