“Gif” or “Jif”? A Linguist's Dilemma

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There has been and continues to be much debate about how G-I-F, the abbreviation for the Graphics Interchange Format, should as a word be pronounced.  Some people argue that it's pronounced “gif” (/gɪf/) with a hard G while others argue that it's “jif” (/dʒɪf/) with a soft G.  Each camp has strong feelings on the subject, eliciting bitter rivalry.

Steve Wilhite of CompuServe, creator of the format, vehemently insists that it's pronounced “jif,”[1] so that's the end of the debate, right?  Well, no, some would still argue that the acronym is pronounced “gif.”

One popular argument is that it's “gif” because “it's 'Graphics Interchange Format' not 'Jraphics Interchange Format.”  This is however a very poor argument because the same logic would demand that the U in SNAFU[2] be pronounced the same as the U in up.  Nobody says “sna-fuh.”[3]

I had always thought it was “gif” and had been saying it that way for well over a decade before I was even aware of the “jif” pronunciation:  My employer of the time was the first person I ever heard say it that way and I said to him, “What are you talking about?  That's a peanut butter!

He said, “No, it really is pronounced 'jif.'”

In fact, Wilhite has stated that he deliberately intended GIF to sound like the American peanut butter brand Jif, and CompuServe employees would often say “Choosy developers choose 'jif,'” spoofing the peanut butter's slogan, “Choosy moms choose Jif.”[4]

Despite the wishes of the format creator, insisting that it be pronounced “jif” is extremely problematic as this pronunciation not only has flimsy phonetic justification, but also lends itself to severe trademark dilution.  Supposing everybody on Earth had accepted this pronunciation, if the Graphics Interchange Format were a broadly marketed purchasable product, CompuServe would be liable for market confusion.  If I told my wife I needed some of Wilhite's “jifs” and asked her to pick some up while she was at Walmart, she'd likely bring me peanut butter instead.

Likewise, if I were to create an operating system and distribute it as “AD-DOS” and insist it's pronounced the same as “Adidas” instead of /eɪ–diː–dɑːs/ with a slogan like, “Our operating system runs the fastest!” I doubt the product confusion would be tolerated by the athletic apparal manufacturer very long before taking me to court.

I think I was about 12 years old when I started using the internet and first encountered graphics with the GIF file extension.  It was a new “word,” one that wasn't in any common vernacular, but “gif” seemed to me to be the obvious pronunciation.  Although there are several soft-G words in the English language, this has always seemed like the exception, not the rule.  During my adolescence I was obsessed with the Sega Genesis, I had been exposed to several variations of the tale of the genie in the lamp, I was familiar with medical terms like genetics, I ate my vegetables, my mom worked on our geneology, I saw giraffs at the zoo, giant was a word I frequently used, and dancing gypsies gyrated in old films, but there were still plenty of common hard-G words like get, give, gear, gizmo, geyser, girl, giggle, gimmick, git, and so on.  It should also be pointed out that a lot of English soft-G words have their etymological origins in other languages where the soft-G is less English-J-like and more drawn out, like the French soft G, as heard in pleasure[5].  Maybe we should refer to the Graphics Interchange Format as /ʒɪf/.

One important key to human language is that our brains are constantly trying to match up non-identical sounds to patterns stored in our memories, which is why we can understand the phrase, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” regardless of whether it is spoken plainly, spoken in a robotic monotone, sung to a tune, or spoken with a heavy foreign accent.  This same mechanism also causes us to sometimes force an interpretation of unfamiliar sounds into familiar ones, which is how Neil Cicierega was able to interpret the Japanese theme song from Pocket Monsters[6] as, “TV says donuts are high in fat kazoo / Found a hobo in my room / It's Princiess Liea, the yodle of life / Give me my sweater back or I'll play the gutair.”[7]

When I first encountered GIF, my brain tried to figure out what sounded right for that spelling.  Even today, the only other English words I can think of that begin with gif- all start with gift, so naturally I thought it was “gif.”

Also to consider is that Jif was already a long established brand of peanut butter in the United States (and lemon juice in the United Kingdom and cleaning chemicals in several other countries).  If it had even entered my mind at the time that the acronym might be pronunce “jif,” I would have thought, “No, that can't be right; that would just be confusing!  Surely such confusion and misassociation wouldn't be intentional.”  (I had a large vocabulary in my adolescence.)

Similarly, if a brand of Mexican food had been established as Gitlers, and somebody claimed that the manufacturer wanted the G to be pronounced like a Spanish G (like an English H) to make it more “ethnically authentic,” anybody with an inkling of mid-20th century history would think that that couldn't possibly be the intended pronunciation because it would tend to make people think of something other than Mexican food.

Taking linguistics a step further, I have now been involved with foreign language learning for the majority of my life.  Whenever I encounter an unfamiliar word that doesn't fit into any linguistic pattern that I'm familiar with, I automatically apply multi-national phonetics to see if I can come up with a logical pronunciation.  If I were to see GIF today for the first time, I would still call it “gif.”  Looking outside of natively English-speaking countries, I'm sure most people would not assume the pronunciation is “jif.”  (French speakers seem to be nearly evenly split between /ʒiːf/ and /giːf/, but they still rarely say /dʒiːf/).

I'm sorry, Mr. Wilhite, but your choice of weak phonetics compounded by trademark dilution lost out against natural human language.  It's “gif.”

  1. Gif's inventor says ignore dictionaries and say 'Jif'
  2. Situation Normal: All [Fowled] Up.
  3. It's still a really funny argument, though:  “Don't Say GIF (Song A Day #1602).”
  4. Wikipedia: Pronunciation of GIF
  5. I realize that pleasure has no G in it, but the way its S is undisputibly prounced is an excellent illustration of the French G.
  6. Original end theme from Pocket Monsters (view video discription for Japanese lyrics and English translation).
  7. Hyakugojyuuichi!!!” by Neil Cicierega