Feb 04 2016

The Great GIF Debate

Ah GIF, the acronym for Graphics Interchange Format. There is no easier way to start an argument online than to bring up just how you pronounce this acronym. If you ask anyone on the street, they will pronounce it with a hard G, as in the way we say “gift” in English. However, if you ask someone on the tech side of things, they will pronounce it with a soft G, like “Jif.” Naturally, one side tries to correct the other, and that’s the beginning of quite a bit of arguing usually.

While I shouldn’t care, I, sadly, am one of those people who gets into the trenches of this debate. It’s funny to notice, too, that there seems to be a hard line in the sand, so to speak, between those who say GIFF and those who say JIF; as I mentioned above, the more tech oriented the person, the more likely they are to say JIF. Why is that?

The developer of the GIF format, Steve Wilhite, stated, in an attempt to quell the debate, that it was pronounced JIF, like the peanut butter brand, going so far as to say the original slogan for the file format was “Choosy developers choose GIF.” The more tech aligned people who learn of this seem to correct themselves and move on, probably due to the natural strive for accuracy that goes hand-in-hand with things like coding, computer hardware, and the like.

You would think that would be the end of that. Sadly, it wasn’t. The casual person, on a whole, seems to shrug off this for various reasons which basically boil down to “I don’t like that, therefore, it’s wrong.”

The top response against this is the fact that the file format itself is short for “Graphics Interchange Format” and that, because GIF is an acronym, it only makes sense that it’s the hard G opened “GIFF” rather than the soft G. After all, the word isn’t jrafics, right?

There is a video (and GIF set) floating around the internet that treats this as a smoking gun in the argument.

The logic is there, but doesn’t really work out, as the reasoning is quite poor. This is often done on a more general sense with a list of words that start with the hard G sound, arguing that the fact it is a G at all means it is pronounced GIFF.

A Photo I took converted to .GIF

A Photo I took converted to .GIF

Neither of these facts matter, though, to me, for 2 reasons:

1: To counter the “hard G for words that start with G” argument, (read, the latter argument) There are also many words in English which open with a soft G sound: Gymnasium, Giraffe, Gelatin, , General, Gentle, Germ, Giant… basically, most G words that have a vowel following them. This counters the argument that words starting in G always start with a hard G, but that leaves us with the other, more prominent argument…

2: Graphics Interchange Format = G I F = Hard G. As I said earlier this is logically sound, but has one critical flaw.

Acronyms don’t have to follow the pronunciation of their original words. No rule in English says they have to.

That simple. The root words do not mean, at all, that a new word, in this case an acronym coined for a digital image format, follow the rules of the original acronym. I found a post online, among the debates, that provided some good examples:  the best of the short list were SCUBA, which is pronounced “skoo-bah” looks like it would be pronounced “skuh-bah, and LASER looks like it shouldn’t have the “z” sound in it, but for whatever reason, when we say it, it does – very few people say “lace-er” but instead say “lazer”

In another example, the Lunar Module for the Apollo program, acronym LM, is pronounced “LEM.” That is a holdover from when it was originally the Lunar Excursion Module. When the word “Excursion” was dropped the letter E was removed, but the pronunciation was kept. Would you argue that the people in NASA and at Grumman should have changed the pronunciation of the acronym?

This goes deeper though; it isn’t just a matter of picking how you want to say a word. While language is ever evolving, that still isn’t the reason why this issue doesn’t matter.

The man who created the format gave it an acronym. He has every single right to say how it should be pronounced. I wish I were kidding when I say that people have actually said “who is he to say how it should be pronounced?” Uh, the creator of the file format, that’s who! It would be like if someone else told you how to pronounce your child’s name: You named them, you determine how it should be pronounced. One could easily state your name however they wish – would you not correct them immediately on this if they said it wrong? What gives objectors to the soft G the right to claim they can do that very thing to a word a man made up?

If Steve Wilhite said it is pronounced “JIF”, then it is pronounced “JIF.” That simple.

I stand by the right for the creator of something to be able to call it whatever they wish, and spell that however they wish to, even if you think it is stupid. Your opinion on how something should be pronounced has no bearing on how it actually should be pronounced when the very creator of, and person who named, the subject in question has expressed what it should be.

As an aside, so no one brings it up, yes, Dictionaries will list both hard and soft G sounds as used: Dictionaries describe the language as it exists, they don’t dictate explicitly what words in the language mean, or how they are pronounced. In other words, they are a side effect of language, not the other way around.

A Photo I took converted to .GIF

A Photo I took converted to .GIF

Was this article necessary? Not really, but I still felt like writing it, if only to have something to link people to so I don’t have to explain this every single time the debate comes up. I do believe I have covered every single element of the debate, without going into individual word-on-word examples. This also, of course, applies only to those who speak English discussing this – in other languages, pronunciation rules are of course different, so take that for what it is.

Still, I arrive at my conclusion, regardless, that all discussion on the subject is pointless: The man who made it says it is JIF. If you wish to say it with the hard G, that’s fine, but I feel it is simply incorrect to do such,

Why does it matter though? Why is this important?

It isn’t. Ironically, though, the fact that so many people go out of their way to discredit what the creator of the format wanted to call it proves the very fact that, for some reason, this is important to them. That desire to prove you are right, even when you aren’t is strong. I know this firsthand in this regard, as I said in my younger years the hard-G form until I learned at a point, I can’t recall when, that it was officially pronounced with the soft G.

For a while the soft form sounded odd to me, but eventually, it stuck with me. I got used to the sound of it, and I grew to like it. Many people argue that it can’t be JIF because that sounds odd to them. Again, that doesn’t matter; There are many words that I don’t like the sound of, but I’m not going to go against those who named them and say the name is wrong. If you say it with the soft G enough, it will grow on you. That’s just how we are, after all.

Lastly, on the subject of acronyms, I’ve noticed a trend for softer sounds in them. The hard-G GIFF just sounds so unpleasant; the softer JIF is certainly more pleasing in conversation, which I think is a root cause of it being chosen to be the pronunciation, out of the options available with those letters, and that at the same time it’s ability to be used for a parody slogan sealed the name choice.

Disagree with me? That’s fine! No one is saying you have to agree, but I feel I have addressed every single argument presented for the hard G and against the soft G. If you can bring up something new, I would love to hear it, but otherwise, I think my point is made. Inevitably, though, I know someone will bring up something I have addressed here. Whatever, that gives me a chance to show that they can’t read, I guess. The point is this article exists solely to give my side of the entire debate, without having to post over and over again replies to such when it is brought up. I’m too busy for that.

Whatever case on how you pronounce GIF, one thing is certain: the internet wouldn’t be the same without it.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GIF#Pronunciation
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hard_and_soft_g
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Description_and_prescription

Permanent link to this article: http://www.xadara.com/the-great-gif-debate/

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