The correct pronunciation for the word ‘GIF’ is one of those perennial debates that never feels quite resolved. Hearing someone say it wrong can be unsettling, and start a whole new round of discussion on an issue you thought you were done thinking about. Both possible answers about how to pronounce GIF have reasonable supporting arguments. So before you get into the weeds of this again, make sure you know them.
The Debate: Hard G vs. Soft G
Words with hard g: golf, gift,
Words with soft g: giraffe, gym, gin
Pronouncing the word with a hard ‘g’ makes it resemble the word ‘gift’, without the ‘t’ on the end. Pronouncing the word with a soft ‘g’ makes it sound somewhat like ‘jif’. Like the peanut butter brand. There are arguments for both options, but we’ll loop back around to that, because some of the key arguments are rooted in the animated image format’s history.
History of the GIF
The GIF format was developed by a team at CompuServ and introduced to the public in 1987. It used the Lempel–Ziv–Welch compression system, owned by Unisys, and caused a copyright argument between the companies. That argument ultimately led to the development of the PNG file type.
But the controversy eventually died down, and the arena in which GIFs excelled became obvious quickly: animated images. When the Netscape browser added support for looping GIFs in 1995, they took off. Shortly after, so did the debate on how to pronounce GIF.
There are two key factors in this history that are relevant to the debate:
1) the full written name of the format: graphics interchange format. This would suggest a hard ‘g’ for GIF, as the word ‘graphic’ uses a hard ‘g’.
2) the opinions of the developers. According to one of the primary developers of the GIF file type, Steve Wilhite, they originally used the soft ‘g’. They knew this sounded like ‘jif’ and even made spoofs on the Jif Peanut Butter marketing slogan.
In English, there are certain letters that have multiple pronunciation options, and sometimes those options overlap with other letters. A good example of this: the letters ‘c’ and ‘k’. ‘C’ can be a hard or soft sound, where ‘k’ is always the hard sound.
The pairing of ‘G’ and ‘J’ is the reverse. ‘G’ can be a hard sound or soft sound, but ‘j’ is always soft.
This is so much the case that the word ‘gaol’ evolved to be spelled ‘jail’ to better fit in with other English spellings and pronunciations. ‘GIF’ can’t easily undergo a similar transformation, however, because of the acronym at the base of the word’s history. The fact that it’s based on the word ‘graphic’ means we won’t be seeing ‘jifs’ any time soon, no matter how pronunciation trends go.
Multiple dictionaries have recognized GIF as a word.
Merriam-Webster offers both options, with the hard ‘g’ listed first.
Oxford Dictionaries works the same way.
Dictionary.com is the opposite – soft ‘g’ first, and “sometimes” hard ‘g’.
Informal surveys have been done, but they mostly just fuel even more debate in the comment sections. This one from Mashable suggests a 70/30 split in favor of the hard ‘g’.
How to Pronounce GIF
It’s almost impossible to avoid taking a stance. If you want to use the word, you’ll have to pick a way to say it. Even just reading it, you probably find yourself mentally “hearing” one version in particular. And no matter where you started this article, you probably ended it feeling the same way.
But at least now you know the arguments for each option. And if this makes you crave a good animated GIF quiz, we’ve got that covered.
How do you pronounce GIF? Let us know in the comments below!