Language Corner

The great GIF debate

July 18, 2016

“You say EE-ther, and I say EYE-ther,” Fred Astaire sang to Ginger Rogers. One modern equivalent is “You say JIF and I say GIF.” 

And even though one developer of the GIF has weighed in on the pronunciation, no one, it seems, wants to call the whole thing off.

GIF, of course, is an acronym for Graphics Interchange Format, a way of sharing images. It was developed in 1987 to allow photos, graphics, or short animated clips to be easily embedded in email or Web pages.

It caught on immediately. The debate about its pronunciation was not far behind.

“The pictures are transmitted in a special computer code called GIF (pronounced jif), which is short for Graphics Interchange Format,” The St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote in 1993. “Animated GIF (pronounced with a hard ‘g’),” The Dallas Morning News wrote in 1999. In between, in 1997, The Sydney Morning Herald noted that “there is endless debate about whether it is pronounced with a hard or soft g.” 

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In 2012, “GIF” was named the USA word of the year by the Oxford dictionaries, which, sadly, did not wade into the pronunciation at that point.

The debate seemed to peak in 2013, when numerous news outlets discussed how one of the developers of the GIF, Steve Wilhite, has always insisted it has a soft g, and was really an homage to the peanut butter brand Jif. (“Choosy developers choose GIF,” he was often quoted as saying, riffing off Jif’s slogan “Choosy mothers choose Jif.”)

You’d think that would settle it, but no. Even as the debate raged, Gizmodo insisted that Wilhite had no right to tell people how to pronounce words. “Sir, why did you not name it JIF like the peanut butter then!” Gizmodo said, noting that the “G” in GIF stood for “graphics,” with a hard “g.” And, anyway, others argued, we are already so used to words beginning “gi” being pronounced with a hard g that it’s a hard habit to break (think “gift” and “gizmo”). But what about “gin,” or “giraffe”? Sigh. (That “g” is silent.)

You can still find people in both camps, each equally adamant. There’s even a website “How to really pronounce GIF” (with a hard “g”) and a Web page “The GIF pronunciation page” (with a soft “g”).

Dictionaries aren’t any help: Oxford now includes both pronunciations, though the hard “g” is first, as does Merriam-Webster. While The American Heritage Dictionary puts the hard “g” first in its pronunciation list, the recording uses the soft one.

Webster’s New World College Dictionary, the one preferred by The Associated Press and many news organizations, has no entry for “GIF” at all, and AP’s pronunciation guide is silent on it as well.

We’re not going to solve that one here, so let’s move on to URL, which stands for either Universal Resource Locator or Uniform Reference Locator. Otherwise known as a Web address.

Most people pronounce URL as an initialism, “you-are-ell.” But a growing number of people, especially in the tech industry, seem to have turned it into an acronym that sounds like “Earl.”

There’s even a black Labrador retriever named URL, pronounced “Earl,” who has been trained to find external data storage devices like thumbdrives that might contain illicit material.

This discussion hasn’t spawned quite so much passion. The debate on Gizmodo was less about whether one was more correct than the other than to note the difference between an initialism and an acronym (which we’ve already done) and which article to use with which pronunciation. (“A you-are-ell” but “an earl.”)

Once again, turning to dictionaries is not much help. Merriam-Webster lists both pronunciations, but records just the initialism. American Heritage goes solely with “you-are-ell,” as does WNW.

But we’ve recently attended presentations by people who work at places like Google (and thus are closer to the subject), and they have been using “earl.” While it would be noble to declare one or another correct, it would also be folly to jump into the middle of an evolution in language.

This debate, of course, also is not new. “Do people really pronounce URL as ‘earl’?” someone asked in 2010 on a discussion board that looks like it was put together by grade schoolers. Among the oh-so-helpful answers like “I’ve been saying ‘earl’ since the Web started” and “I haven’t heard anyone call it an ‘Earl’ since 1999” was this:

“They are the same people who pronounce GIF like jiff.”

NOW let’s call the whole thing off.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.