My Irrefutable Three-Point Platform (and Final Word) on GIF Pronunciation

You like potato, and I like potahto,
You like tomato, and I like tomahto,
Potato, potahto, Tomato, tomahto.
Let’s call the whole thing off!

People love to disagree, love to pick sides, and love to express their opinion — and will often be willing to fall on their proverbial sword for it.

If you’re not into reading, there’s a tl;dr version at the end.

For whatever reason, the disagreement of our internet-enabled generation is in the pronunciation of the acronym “GIF”, which stands for Graphics Interchange Format — a surprisingly enduring format for computer graphic files.

As most of us are painfully aware, the opposing camps are split as to whether GIF is pronounced with a hard ‘G’ (as in “gallop”), or a soft ‘G’ (as in “giant”). The argument goes like this:

Hard ‘G’ Believers: “It’s pronounced with a hard ‘G’ because the ‘G’ stands for ‘Graphic’, stupid. How do you pronounce that word? ‘jraphic!? Idiot!”

And off they go, a mortal enemy defeated, proud and prancing away in willful ignorance. Some will even pause to intentionally mispronounce several other words that begin with the letter ‘G’, just in case you didn’t fathom their point. There is a logic to this argument to be sure. But it’s also wrong.

“If fifty million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing.”
 — Anatole France

So why are people so passionate about this admittedly absurd argument? A 2013 New York Times article offers this:

Elizabeth Pyatt, Ph.D., a linguist at Penn State University, has a theory: Cultures typically associate a “standard” pronunciation as a marker of status. Mispronouncing a word — even a technical term — can cause feelings of shame and inadequacy. If people believe there is a logical basis for their pronunciation, they are not apt to give it up.

Even our perennial references — dictionaries — are split on the matter. The American Heritage Dictionary cites soft-G pronunciation as the primary pronunication. The Cambridge Dictionary of American English cites hard-G as correct. The Switzerland of dictionaries, both Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and Oxford Dictionary (who coincidentally named “GIF” Word of the Year in 2012), noncommittally define both pronunciations as correct, while the New Oxford American Dictionary lands in the soft-G camp.

In this post I will reaffirm my stance as a Soft ‘G’ Defender, offering a carefully-considered three-point platform (and final word) on GIF pronunciation.

I have willingly entered into this debate so many times (rarely instigating it, but always willing to join the fray), that I’ve gotten tired of reiterating my points. I’ve decided to simply write them down, and refer people to this post the next it comes up, which should be any minute now.

Any one of these points should be enough to refute Hard ‘G’ Believers — and I have successfully converted a few die-hards using this platform — but I cannot guarantee success with your own detractors.


My three-point platform for soft ‘G’ pronunciation is based upon the following evidence:

1. Inventor’s Rights
2. A False Language Premise
3. Inconsistent Logic

Here we go:

Point 1: Inventor’s Rights

My first point, Inventor’s Rights, requires a quick bit of historical explanation: The GIF format was invented in and for the pre-Web olden days of 1987. (That’s right kids, the first World Wide Web browser wasn’t available until 1990.)

CompuServe introduced the GIF format, partly as a means for Windows PCs, Apple’s Macs, the Atari ST, Commodore’s Amiga, and Sun workstations to interoperate with a common file format to share graphics online. That’s what the interchange part of the acronym is in reference to.

GIF files compressed in size reasonably well (given they have a minimum of two but a maximum of 256 colors out of a potential color palette of 16.7 million), which was especially important in the Dark Days Before Broadband. GIFs naturally became one of the first file formats supported on the Web for the same reasons they were popular on CompuServe’s network: virtually anyone could view them, and they downloaded relatively quickly. As the Web matured, JPEG graphics joined GIFs in popular use, with JPEGs being better-suited for photographic images, while GIFs were a better choice for graphics with large areas of flat color, or for when rudimentary animation was called for.

I’ve been a card-carrying geek and graphic designer since those days. That means this topic is “in my wheelhouse”, as they say. It also means I’m in the somewhat unique position of having been online before GIFs existed, I participated in discussion surrounding them, designed and delivered graphics using the format, and have since witnessed the slow but inexplicable and inexorable “evolution” in pronunciation from soft-G to hard. Back in the early days, it wasn’t even a question, much less the schism it is today: it simply was soft-G.

Steve Wilhite in 1987 and 2013.

Steve Wilhite was the CompuServe engineering lead on the team that invented the GIF format. As the inventor of the format, Mr. Wilhite is granted certain inalienable rights, including getting to name (and establish the pronunciation) for his product in any way that pleases him. When astronomers discover a new star or planet, or entomologists discover a new species of insect, they get to call it whatever they want — and you can’t really tell them they’re wrong, can you? But for Hard ‘G’ Believers, Mr. Wilhite is simply not granted that same honor or respect.

Steve nobly attempted to put the irksome argument to rest in 2013 when he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Webby Awards for inventing the GIF format. He used the precious 5-word-limit acceptance speech, a hallmark of the Webby Awards, to confirm his stance:

At around the same time, Mr. Wilhite even clapped back at the aforementioned Oxford Dictionary with:

“The Oxford English Dictionary accepts both pronunciations,” Mr. Wilhite said. “They are wrong. It is a soft ‘G,’ pronounced ‘jif.’ End of story.”

So that’s point one. The guy who invented it fucking says so.

Granted, I’ve never been able to get anyone to change their mind with just this first point. Hard ‘G’ Believers tend to be a bit hard-headed, so I frequently must move on to Point 2.

But first, a few other bonus historical points of evidence:

  • A 1987 issue of Online Today, CompuServe’s subscriber magazine, featured an article entitled “Computer Users Choose GIF”, confirming the pronunciation as “jif”.
  • Two years later, in 1989, the same magazine featured an article called “Get the Picture!”, where they re-confirm the pronunciation as “jiff”.
  • While there are numerous examples to be found online, software engineers of the era affiliated with CompuServe offer anecdotes, such as this one from a Charlie Reading: “I worked with the creator of GIF (Steve Wilhite) when I was still employed by CompuServe. Steve always pronounced it ‘jiff’ and would correct those who pronounced it with a hard G. ‘Choosy developers choose GIF’ (spinning off of a historically popular peanut butter commercial).”
  • The GIF Pronunciation Page (which of course exists) cites: “CompuServe used to distribute a graphics display program called CompuShow. In the documentation for version 8.33 in the FAQ section, it states:
The GIF (Graphics Interchange Format), pronounced “JIF”, was designed by CompuServe and the official specification released in June of 1987.

Point 2: A False Language Premise

This next point is quicker to make (you’re welcome) — and it has to do with the false premise frequently posited by Hard ‘G’ Believers: “It’s pronounced with a hard-G because the ‘G’ stands for ‘Graphics’.”

My love for pedantry aside, that argument doesn’t hold water. Why?

Because there is no actual rule in the English language that dictates an acronym must be pronounced in the same way its constituent words are pronounced. Really.

If anyone can point me to any such rule set forth by any recognized, governing language body, I will gladly remove this point from my argument forevermore. I’ll wait here.

Still not convinced? I didn’t think so. Point 2 is really just a stepping stone to Point 3, and I’m happy to tell you that I’ve used Point 3 to convince more than a few ardent Hard ‘G’ Believers to change their tune. You won’t believe what happens next!


Point 3: Inconsistent Logic

Interestingly, this point can touch on the same feelings that linguist Elizabeth Pyatt pointed out; that mispronouncing a word can cause feelings of shame and inadequacy. No one wants to look like a fool among their peers, fewer still will admit that they’ve been doing (or saying) something wrong for many years. So it’s hard to change your mind on something like this. I mean, consider the stakes.

I refer to this point as “The Big Guns” because it points out a logical inconsistency in the Hard ‘G’ Believers strongest argument: that an acronym must be pronounced in the same way as its constituent words. After ardently dismissing Points 1 and 2 out of hand, Hard ‘G’ Believers have at this point moved on from being hard-headed to outright willful opposers— they’ve dug in their heels and are ready to fall on that sword — it’s now a matter of principle for them.

So Point 3 offers a simple challenge: be consistent. What could be easier for a supposedly logical pedant to agree to?

Making Point 3 goes something like this: “Let’s play a little game. I’m going to say a few common words, and you tell me if you agree with my pronunciation. Ready?”

LASER.
ASAP.
SCUBA.

And the coup de grâce: JPEG.

What do all these words have in common? While they function as regular, pronounceable words in our language, most people don’t tend to think of them as acronyms, but of course they are — and here’s where it gets fun. No one really refutes the pronunciation of any of these words, everyone who speaks English more or less says them the same way.

Now let’s define each of these acronyms using their constituent words:

LASER: Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation
ASAP: As Soon As Possible
SCUBA: Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus
JPEG: Joint Photographic Experts Group

Do you see where I’m going with this? Because this is usually when Hard ‘G’ Believers start to show visible signs of nervousness. Some even become outright skittish — even hostile!

The finishing move in Point 3 is to ask Hard ‘G’ Believers — who so strongly believe in their conviction — to be consistent in that belief and practice. What good is pedantry, after all, if you’re not going to go all in?

Do you pronounce “LASER” the same way everyone else does? Well, the ‘A’ in ‘LASER’ stands for ‘Amplification’ — a soft ‘A’ — and the ‘E’ stands for ‘Emission’ — a long ‘E’. So, starting today, you’re going to have to start pronouncing it “laa-zeer”, as in “last” and “ear”.

Do you pronounce “ASAP” the same way everyone else does? Well, the first ‘A’ in ‘ASAP’ stands for ‘As’ — a soft ‘A’. So, starting today, you’re going to have to start pronouncing it “ass-app”.

Do you pronounce “SCUBA” the same way everyone else does? Well, the ‘U’ in ‘SCUBA’ stands for ‘Underwater’ — a short ‘U’. So, starting today, you’re going to have to start pronouncing it “scuh-buh.”

And, my personal favorite because of JPEG’s close association with GIF:

Do you pronounce “JPEG” the same way everyone else does? Well, the ‘P’ in ‘JPEG’ stands for ‘Photographic’ — an ‘F’ sound. So, starting today, you’re going to have to start pronouncing it “jay-feg.”

“Are you ready to commit to changing the way you pronounce all of those words, and more?”

In the many times I’ve made this final point, no one has ever been able to refute it. People hate it. There’s really no come-back for it. A few people have, at this point, given up and changed their minds. It’s really miraculous to see, and I smile inwardly hearing them change their pronunciation in subsequent conversations, even when I’m not involved.

Listen, I’m really glad we’ve had this talk. And I’m really glad I’ve written this down so I don’t have to verbalize my points anymore. After all, verbalized communication is what got us into this mess in the first place, isn’t it?

I hope you find this a valuable reference the next time you’re accosted by an unruly gang of Hard ‘G’ Believers. Keep on fighting the good fight.

And I’m so glad this argument is finally settled.

(Hey! Not so fast, dude! I’m still not convinced by your asinine three-point platform — you’re just wrong! Face it: language is a living thing. It evolves over time, and just because the creator of a word says one thing, once it’s delivered into the world it belongs to the People. Communication evolves; that’s just how language, community and culture work. I’m going to keep using the Hard G!”)

Oh, fuck off.


tl;dr version:

Point 1: Inventor’s Rights. The inventor of the GIF format has confirmed on more than one occasion that it’s pronounced with a soft-G, as in “jif”. That really should be enough.

Point 2: False Language Premise. The common argument in support of a hard-G pronunciation is that the ‘G’ in GIF stands for ‘Graphics’, therefore the acronym must be pronounced that way. There is no actual rule in the English language that states that an acronym must be pronounced the same way its constituent words are pronounced. This is a false premise which does not hold water. But if that’s the logic you’re clinging to…

Point 3: Inconsistent Logic. Following on Point 2, if people insist on adhering to a pedantic internal logic for pronunciation, they should be consistent in the application of that logic. They must change the way they pronounce words like LASER, ASAP, SCUBA and even JPEG, because the commonly-accepted pronunciations of those words would change if you used the pronunciation of their constituent words.