You Say GIF I Say JIF…and We’re Not Calling It Off Anytime Soon

3 minute read

Upland Admin

Is pronunciation subjective? If we’ve learned anything from the GIF vs JIF debate, the answer is a resounding yes.

The battle over how GIF, or Graphics Interchange Format, is pronounced has been deemed “The Most Absurd Religious War in Greek History” and dates back to the dawn of the World Wide Web.

The GIF was born in 1987. That year, we were jamming to Lionel Richie on the airwaves, spending 89 cents for a gallon of gas, and were completely oblivious to the Internet, which was still two years away from launch. CompuServe introduced the first version of the GIF (then called “87A”) which, at the time, allowed up to 256 colors and paved the way for the image loops.


Early versions of the now revered format included the waving flag and the “Under Construction” banner. While these elementary examples were popular at the time, it was The Dancing Baby that put the GIF on the road to stardom in 1996. Through the years, the GIF has evolved not only to provide the procrastinator with endlessly entertaining gags and memes, but is also now celebrated as an artistic medium.


The Internet has fallen in love. The GIF — and the debate over its pronunciation — is here to stay. Everyone has an opinion. Even The White House has weighed in:

Surely GIF inventor Steve Wilhite can settle the score. In his Webby Awards acceptance speech last May for a lifetime achievement award, he declared that it should indeed be pronounced JIF, like the nut butter rather than GIF with a hard g sound. But instead of silencing the feud, Wilhite fanned the flames. His speech generated 17,000 responses on Twitter and 50 news articles.


And even now, almost a year later, the dispute is still raging. But why? Shouldn’t we all just shut up and go home already? Apparently not. If the Oxford English Dictionary won’t draw a line in the sand, why should we? In response to Whittle’s speech, the OED’s editor, John Simpson, had this to say:

“As we explained when GIF was selected as Oxford Dictonaries USA Word of the Year 2012, GIF may be pronounced with either a soft g, as in giant, or a hard g, as in graphic. The programmers who developed the format preferred a pronunciation with a soft g – in homage to the commercial tagline of the peanut butter brand Jif, they supposedly quipped, ‘choosy developers choose GIF.’ However, the pronunciation with a hard g is now very widespread and readily understood.”

If people believe there is a logical reason for their pronunciation (e.g. that the g in GIF stands for “graphics”) they “aren’t apt to give it up.”

The big obstacle in pronunciation, according to Elizabeth Pyatt, a linguist at Penn State, is our pride. In an interview with The New York Times, she claimed people are concerned with they way they pronounce words because it’s a marker of cultural status. Mispronouncing a word can “cause feelings of shame and inadequacy,” so if people believe there is a logical reason for their pronunciation (e.g. that the g in GIF stands for “graphics”) they “aren’t apt to give it up.”

If you’re like me, and count yourself in the hard g camp, I wouldn’t throw in the towel any time soon.  Language is a fluid thing. Just as the meaning of words change over time, so too can their “official” pronunciation.

So, Mr. Whittle, I say this with all due respect: you may have won a battle last year. But the war is far from over.

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