The GIF debate — What’s the big deal?

2 min read

Want to stir up the conversation at your next dinner party? Skip topics like religion and politics, and try asking people how they pronounce GIF.

For the uninitiated, a GIF is a type of image file shared online. Its distinguishing feature is the ability to combine several image frames into a single file, creating the illusion of animation. You’ve probably received one via email, text, or chat, and laughed. The pronunciation, however, is no laughing matter among designers, marketers, and web-savvy folks.  

The contenders: jiff vs. giff

In one corner, we have GIF pronounced with a soft “G” sound, identical to Jif peanut butter. The founder of the GIF file type — which stands for Graphic Interchange Format — stated back in 2013 he intended for the sound to be with a soft “G,” which incited thousands of tweets on either side of the matter. If the founder's intent matters, consider that a tick in the “soft” column.

On the flip side, we’ve got the proponents for the hard “G” sound, as in gift without the “T.” If popularity counts for anything, the hard “G” is the most widely used pronunciation around the globe.  

Why the hard “G” is correct

Words that start with the letter “G,” followed by a vowel and then the letter “F,” are consistently pronounced with a hard “G,” such as gaffe or guffaw. In fact, most single-syllable words that start with a “G” use the harder sound — like gas or gone. And given that the word gift is closest to GIF, it tracks that they should sound the same.

Some people also argue that because the “G” stands for a hard “G” word (graphic) it should play a role in the pronunciation (although that’s not accurate for all acronyms).

Why the soft “G” is correct

First, the founder’s intent was to pronounce it as jif, based largely on the catchy Jif peanut butter slogan — “Choosy developers choose GIF.”

Secondly, GIF is an acronym, not an initialism. With acronyms, the abbreviation is pronounced as a single word, like NASA, and often takes on a more sonorous sound that isn’t linked to the full words.

Also, while single-syllable “G” words are often pronounced with a hard “G,” it’s not exclusive — gem or gin are two examples of a soft “G.”  

And the winner is...

A hard take on GIF follows the patterns of English most accurately, and it is the most-adopted pronunciation around the world. But the soft “G” version admittedly sounds more fluid and more natural, even if, when looking at the abbreviation, it doesn’t totally track. The good news? The OED accepts both pronunciations. So if your dinner guests end up in a draw, feel free to move onto a light-hearted chat about whatever issue is trending on the nightly news.

Photo credit: Tim Mossholder/ Unsplash

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