Many of us have apparently been saying it wrong for years. This week, the inventor of the GIF image format revealed that the correct pronunciation of the popular image format is "Jif."
Anyone who has been involved in interactive media production has encountered meetings where both the hard "g" and soft "g" pronunciation of the term were bandied about to describe the image format. The name itself can describe a single image or a GIF animation sequence of separate images. Its original innovation was supporting 8 bits per pixel to indicate up to 256 colors, from a 24-bit color space, thus presenting a lot of color choices in a small file size.
At the Webby Awards on Tuesday night in New York City, the creator of the Graphics Interchange Format, Steve Wilhite, accepted a lifetime achievement award. Award winners at the Webbies are limited to acceptance speeches of no more than five words.
Accompanied by the dramatic set-up music from the movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey, otherwise known as Richard Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra, five words were displayed on the screen over the podium where Wilhite was standing to accept his award: "It's pronounced 'JIF' not 'GIF.' "
Internet historians have pointed out that the pioneering CompuServe had an early graphics display program called CompuShow. That included the Graphics Interchange Format, or GIF, which the documentation said was officially spec'd in 1987 and was "pronounced 'JIF'." Additionally, in 1997 a brief e-mail answer from CompuShow creator Bob Berry was published in the Internet news group alt.ascii-art. Answering a query from someone who wanted the matter settled once and for all, Berry replied that "GIF has always been pronounced 'jif,' since it was first released in 1987."
Some observers have noted that, for some unknown reason, Mac users have preferred to use the hard "G," while PC users have favored the soft version.
Why should GIF be pronounced like "giraffe," and not, say, like "gift"? One defense of the correct pronunciation is that, since it's an acronym created by someone, its parent can decide how it should be said, just as countless parents have determined that their creation is called "Saundra" and not "Sandra," even if it's spelled the latter way.
With due respect to the naming rights of parents, others, including no less than the White House, have consistently pronounced it with the hard G. But English mavens on the Net have noted that a G as the first letter of a word is usually soft when followed by i, e or y, as in giraffe or German, and hard when followed by a, o or u, as in gap or guide.
Last year, the Oxford American Dictionaries chose GIF in its verb format as "word of the year," and used this definition: "to create a GIF file of an image or video sequence, especially relating to an event," referencing the now-viral use of GIF animation. However, the dictionary, contrary to the wishes of the format's creator, decreed that it could be pronounced either way.