I’m on a crusade, so I’ll get right to the point. GIF is pronounced like the peanut butter. Jif.
It’s understandable that one might be tempted to entertain a hard “G” sound considering that GIF is an acronym for “Graphics Interchange Format” and not something like “Giraffe Incubation Foundation” or “Gelatinous Inscription Factor.” But if you still feel compelled to pronounce it incorrectly, you will earn the disfavor of its inventor, Steve Wilhite. As he told the NY Times:
“The Oxford English Dictionary accepts both pronunciations. They are wrong. It is a soft ‘G,’ pronounced ‘jif.’ End of story.”
There you have it, /dʒ/ wins. I mean, who’s going to argue with its creator? Until he sells the naming rights like a Major League Ballpark, shouldn’t he get to decide how it is voiced? My name is spelled M-A-R-K, but what if I told you it’s actually pronounced “Steve?” Yes, it would be quite odd and confusing, but it’s my name, so it’s my choice.
Though some would beg to differ, the pronunciation is not a hill to die on. There are plenty of vocal advocates (pun intended) on both sides of the debate, and I have seen many a temper flare over this issue. But I have been programming since the ’80s, working in web development and design since the birth of the World Wide Web, have wasted countless hours painstakingly creating GIFs pixel by pixel, and spent a fair amount of time in those early days interacting with other developers face-to-face, over IRC, in Usenet groups, on BBSs, and through various other forums. Not once did I ever hear of someone even think about using a hard “G.”
In fact, it was fairly well known that the GIF development team at CompuServe had a saying: “Choosy developers choose GIF,” which was a play on the slogan of a memorable peanut butter commercial at the time: “Choosy mothers choose Jif.” This was certainly to tout their superior graphics format, and whether it was intentional or not, it elucidated the intended pronunciation of their new creation. So for me and my comrades, it was never even a question. Methinks it was the latecomers to the party that started saying it incorrectly, and we seasoned veterans did not do a very good job in passing along our sage wisdom.
So basically, I’m partly to blame. And for this, I offer my sincerest of apologies. I now feel morally obligated to rectify this by repenting and shining the light of truth on this subject. Perhaps it is not too late to save a few other unsuspecting souls from blindly wandering down the dark path of mispronunciation. Yes, I am a man on a mission.
But enough about me, let’s talk about our old friend GIF.
A Brief History of the GIF
Wilhite worked for CompuServe, the first online service provider in the U.S., and developed the Graphics Interchange Format in 1987. (Support for animation and transparency was added in 1989.) He and his team were trying to find a more efficient way to display and share color image files without taking up so much darn computer memory. (A mere 3 MB of memory was more than $500 back then!)
Connection speed was also an issue because users paid for service by the hour. And dialup internet access was so painfully slow – sending a 20 KB text file to a remote colleague would give you enough time to take the dog for a walk. Forget about waiting on a 10 MB image – you might as well go on vacation.
To help solve this problem, the GIF was specifically developed to be a bitmap image format that used lossless data compression. This meant users could render high-quality graphics with much smaller file sizes. And that meant much faster transfer times and much less memory usage. Which in turn meant much happier people.
The GIF quickly became a commonly used image format when the fledgling World Wide Web came onto the scene in the early ’90s. However, things really took off in 1995 when the web browser Netscape Navigator added support for displaying the animated looping capability of GIFs. Without being able to effectively render video on the web at the time, this was at least a way to show “moving pictures” – a poor man’s video if you will.
Over the years, other image formats started gaining online ground such as the lossy JPG (Joint Photographic Experts Group) and the raster-based PNG (Portable Network Graphics). And though they didn’t support animation, the filesizes would often be much smaller and the ability to actually stream video eventually became possible. Animated GIFs were a neat little parlor trick, but for most people, there wasn’t enough practical use for them – at least not on the web.
So people’s GIF memories slowly began to fade (along with the pronunciation) until we had an entire generation who had no idea what a GIF was, let alone how to say it.
And then something happened.
Enter Social Media and Memes
The GIF has seen a massive resurgence in popularity over the last several years, thanks in large part to social media and peoples’ love affair with memes. Why say something with words, when it can be said in pictures? And why say something in pictures when it can be said with moving pictures? Especially when you can have words on moving pictures!
But one thing didn’t seem to make the glorious return with the GIF — proper pronunciation. Now, I’m not going to judge anyone for their lingual sins with respect to this particular acronym. As I stated earlier, it’s not their fault – they simply don’t know any better. But it is up to us to gently correct them lest our civil society falls into verbal chaos.
Though the days of the infamous dancing baby are (hopefully) long gone, it doesn’t look as though the GIF itself is going away anytime soon. Therefore, I invite you to join my valiant crusade to spread the good word! Just make sure you pronounce it correctly when you do so.