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GIF Creator Says “Jif,” Once Again

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It is remarkable how much ire can be raised when one stakes a controversial position on an issue of the day. No, I’m not talking about guns, taxes, government wiretapping, or a political party. I’m talking about the pronunciation of GIF.

The Graphics Interchange Format (GIF) was invented by Steve Wilhite at CompuServe in 1987. Wilhite has been out of the public eye for many years (he retired in 2001), but the Webby Awards tracked him down in order to present him with a lifetime achievement award.

He spoke to Amy O’Leary at the New York Times about the long-running controversy. In short, right-minded people follow his lead. He told O’Leary, “The Oxford English Dictionary accepts both pronunciations. They are wrong. It is a soft ‘G,’ pronounced ‘jif.’ End of story.” The rest of you lot insist that the word graphic in the GIF name means it’s a hard G sound, but that’s simply not how it started.

Way back in the before time, in 1997, when TidBITS briefly pupped the Internet-focused spinoff NetBITS (run by your intrepid editor), we provided a definitive explanation that proved today to be as accurate as we always thought it was: “It’s ‘Jiff’ and I Don’t Want to Hear Another Word.”

Now for a ride on my giraffe while drinking a gin and tonic. I'm off to catch a ghoti! G'day, m8!


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Comments about GIF Creator Says “Jif,” Once Again

Michael E. Cohen  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-05-21 17:27
Oddly enough, my favorite peanut butter is pronounced, Shkippy!
Stephen Lane  2013-05-21 17:51
What about jpg? Is it still jaypeg?
George Stamas  2013-05-21 19:33
JPEG still is. But jpg is properly pronounced gaypeejee.
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-05-22 09:30
Wish I had implemented upvoting in the forums.
Neither article says whether the creator explains why it should be pronounced with a soft g when the first word in the acronym is graphics with a hard g and the closest real word, gift, also has a hard g. The creator can be wrong here, can't he? There's something to be said for following phonetic rules and common sense. What if he decided it really should be pronounced jife or gife?
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-05-22 07:06
Can the creator be wrong? No, I don't think so. Tonya's name is pronounced with an "ah" sound, as in "tahnya." It is not pronounced with a "oh" sound, as the name "Tony" is, as logical as that might seem to some people. (Nor is it pronounced like "Tanya," as illogical as that is.) Tonya's parents chose that specific pronunciation, and while Tonya could have changed it at some point had she wanted (there being a difference between the creator and owner of a personal name), she didn't. So, when referring to her, there's one pronunciation that's right, and all others are wrong.
Steve Wilhite's name is not "GIF." He does not own the acronym in the way he owns his name.

Heck, even the name thing is a mirage. Shakespeare spelled his name multiple ways, but seemed to like "Shakspere" most, yet that's not the accepted spelling at the moment.

Given that, I assume that TidBITS, which has been misspelling the Great Bard's name all this time (, will change its spelling.
Sorry, I don't think the comparison to made up proper names is valid here at all. This isn't a made up name. It's a 3 letter acronym to describe the format, so I don't see why the creator of the format gets to choose how to pronounce it, "just because". I know several very smart people who mispronounce words all the time. Just because Wilhite mispronounced his acronym, doesn't mean we should all be subject to following him down that path.

1. Again, the closest word we have in English in both sound and spelling is gift, in which the g is hard and the t is almost silent.

2. The point of phonetic rules is to remove ambiguity and allow us to consistently pronounce words we've never seen with some confidence that we'll be right. We already have a real word in English, jiff, and it's spelled with a j.

3. Graphics has a hard g.

If Eisenhower had introduced the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to the country like, "I give you naysay!", people would have said, uh... nay.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-05-22 09:14
Given that spelling was all over the map in general at the time, and even Shakespeare wasn't consistent, I don't think that's the best analogy.

I'll stand by my statement - he or she who comes up with a word or name gets to say how it is spelled and pronounced. Wilhite was and remains clear and consistent in how he intended it to be pronounced, and I think it's at best rude to deny that he doesn't get to say what his invention is called.

And although it is nominally an acronym, the mere fact of that doesn't mean that its pronunciation must come from the constituent words. We say "ass-key" for ASCII, not "us-ki" even though the first word in it is "American" and the "Information Interchange" words certainly don't have "ee" sounds.
Kevan Pegley  An apple icon for a TidBITS Supporter 2013-05-22 08:24
Interesting point Adam. But surely that is one of the major differences between proper nouns and ordinary nouns. The former do 'belong' to someone, and can therefore legitimately be said to have a 'correct' pronunciation, as defined by that person. (Mind you, once you get away from people's names into place names, it probably becomes just as impossible to define 'correct' pronunciation. Newcastle anyone?)

But every day words can never be said to have a 'correct' pronunciation. Who would be defining that? Because you lot over there choose to call an anchored float a 'boo-ee' and we over the other side of the ocean call it a 'boy', that doesn't make some of us wrong. (Mind you, I'd love to know how Americans pronounce 'buoy' as a verb, particularly its past participle, as in something is buoyed up. But I digress.)

There is only one way to define the 'correct' pronunciation of a normal word, and that is usage. If the majority of people say 'GIF' with a hard G, like girl, give, gill, girder, gimlet, gimbal, etc, then, whatever the inventor of the Graphics Interchange Format feels about the subject, the nearest one can come to defining its correct pronunciation is with a hard G.

The English language is probably the most democratic institution in the history of the world. If the majority use a word, or its spelling, or its pronunciation, that becomes an established fact. Wonderful isn't it? It is only sad that the process of democratisation leads to the loss of some wonderful words and blurring of some precise definitions.

Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-05-22 09:18
It is a made up name because Wilhite made it up. There was no Graphics Interchange Format before he came up with the entire thing: technology, short name, long name, and pronunciation. It's a package deal.

And the NASA analogy supports my contention perfectly. The acronym is pronounced differently from the constituent words.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-05-22 09:21
I'd argue that GIF is absolutely a proper noun and "belongs" to Steve Wilhite. And yes, pronunciations vary, but if you go to a place and pronounce the name wrong for how people there use it, they'll correct you, just as has been done with GIF since the beginning. That doesn't mean you can't pronounce it wrong, or that lots of people won't pronounce it wrong, but it will still be wrong.
You ignore my first 2 points, and I was trying to come up with some actual logic for the third that wasn't just, "because I said so". NASA and ASCII are pronounced the way they are because of phonics, not because someone decided they should be said a certain way. Wilhite came up with Graphic Interchange Format, he doesn't own the pronunciation of the acronym. Jif with a soft g is phonetically incorrect in the country he is from. If the vast majority of the rest of us say it the way it should be said, it doesn't make it "correct" just because he said it does. If he wants to say, "I want it pronounced incorrectly!", great, as long as he acknowledges it. I still haven't heard any explanation as to why he decided it should be pronounced incorrectly.
Assuming that for the next several decades people keep pronouncing it with the hard "G," until it's the accepted pronunciation, does it ever become "right"?
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-05-22 11:15
I'm not enough of a linguist to speak from authority, but I see no violation of actual rules for the word GIF (as opposed to the acronym GIF) to require a hard G. It might be different from the close word "gift," but that's no crime, and while phonics might suggest a pronunciation, there are plenty of situations where such suggestions aren't heeded.

It is certainly true that Wilhite has never explained the pronunciation that I've seen, but here's a suggestion. Perhaps "Graphics Interchange Format" was a backronym - that he came up with the idea of calling it "jif" first for some reason - perhaps because the graphics rendered quickly - and then worked backwards to GIF and Graphics Interchange Format. Unless someone asks him explicitly, we'll never know.

One final thought prompted by the backronym idea, which is that many acronyms have more meaning now than their expansions. In other words SSL is actually more meaningful than Secure Sockets Layer because the expansion requires more technical explanation for each word.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-05-22 09:38
To my mind, no. But a dictionary that was doing its job right would give the proper pronunciation and note that the alternative is in common use.

Just because a lot (even a majority) of people do something wrong doesn't make it right, it just makes it common.

And of course it's always up to the creator to be flexible, if desired. A friend's last name is "Hartshorne" and most people pronounce it with a "sh" sound. A while back he told me that's actually wrong, that it's really "harts-horn" and since then I've made an effort to use it that way. But since he's not bothered when people get it wrong, I don't go to significant effort to correct people, as I do when someone gets Tonya's name wrong.
Phonics exceptions exist, but this isn't one of them. There are no words in the English language that begin with g+vowel+f, where the g is soft. So almost anyone that comes across this commonly used standard would pronounce it like gift, because that's the way it should be pronounced. To then have to correct that person just because the creator was being obtuse (or is bad with phonics) is a failing of a part of the idea of standards.

I like the idea of backronyms, and this may be one, but doesn't the fact that this article was written (again) point to the possibility that Wilhite is in the wrong here, or at the very least chose poorly when deciding how his creation - that was made for use by other english speaking humans - should be pronounced? If there is a backronym explanation like yours, which makes sense, why isn't that a better known part of its history? Graphics in a jIFf is a lot easier to remember/teach than Graphics Interchange Format as jiff for no reason than "I said so".
The broader implication of your statement is that *all* pronunciation changes are wrong and we should go back to the original (i.e., "right") way of pronouncing words.

"Just because a lot (even a majority) of people do something wrong doesn't make it right, it just makes it common."

I agree that that's largely true, but not universally. In the case, of language, I suspect that exactly the opposite is, in fact, true: the right way is the way that it is used (obviously there are grey/gray areas).
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-05-22 10:46
No, I'm not arguing against the malleability of language, I'm arguing for the rights of creators. I'm a great believer in the right of people who create anything to control certain aspects of their creations, with the big two instances being the right of naming and the right of announcement.

This is one reason I was always bothered by leaks about Apple's new products - I believe Apple should be given the right to announce what they create, just as newly pregnant women should have sole say in sharing of the news. At some point, the product is announced, or the woman becomes obviously pregnant, and the information is no longer privileged, but until that point, I think that the creator gets to say what is shared.

As far as the naming goes, it's partly because credit should be given where credit is due, and if we dismiss the naming right of the creator, then it's all too easy for someone to come along afterwards and steal the credit through a concerted effort to control the name.

I still remember Apple telling my friend Cary Lu that they wanted him, in his book about eWorld, to intercap the word "eMail" everywhere (not just when referring to the interface) because they wanted to get eMail into common circulation so everyone would come to associate all email with eWorld. Needless to say, Cary told them he would not be party to such linguistic tomfoolery.
And the acronym is not a made up name. The name of the format, Graphic Interchange Format, is, but the acronym is just an acronym.
This whole discussion is a tough stretch to fit under the umbrella of the rights of creators. He owns his creation, but he doesn't own language, and if his creation becomes a standard that we all have to use and say verbally, shouldn't it adhere to our language norms? Especially when he's given no explanation why it would be purposely mispronounced as jiff.

"Hey, I made this thing and named it in a way that would be confusing for generations to come because it's pronounced incorrectly, but we should keep it that way, because I said so."
"No, I'm not arguing against the malleability of language, I'm arguing for the rights of creators"

I'm not sure you can do the latter without doing the former. If the language is malleable, then sometimes someone is going to have their preferences stepped on and that's often going to be the creator of a word or a phrase.

(By the way, has the inventor of the word "graphic" weighed in? I think he/she has superceding rights in this.)
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-05-22 11:39
I think lots of people have silly names that we all have to use and say verbally, but I don't dispute their right to say how they should be pronounced, even if it's unexpected.

I really do see naming something you invent - including how you want it pronounced - as the same thing as naming a baby. People don't have to adhere to your wishes, but that doesn't make them right.

I think we've beaten this horse to death though, so we'll just have to agree to disagree.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-05-22 11:46
There's a significant difference between a common word like "graphic" and an invented word like "GIF." :-) And yes, I'm fully aware that a creator's wishes may not be respected by everyone, but speaking for myself, when I know what they are, I'll do my best to honor them.
I'm trying to be constructive, so I apologize if this comes across as argumentative. One of the goals of standards that lots of people have to use is that they should be as easy to understand, implement, and discuss with others, as possible. If something as basic as it's incorrect pronunciation distracts from it's intended use, that is a failure to some degree.

- GIF isn't a word Wilhite came up with, it's an acronym, and it's apparently only explanation is as an acronym. Acronyms are usually pronounced phonetically.

- The comparison to proper names isn't a good one for 2 reasons. Proper names are usually introduced verbally, giving the people who own them the chance to demonstrate proper pronunciation (which isn't the case with written standards). It's also far more common for proper names to often deviate from the normal rules of phonics.

Agree to disagree, but I think this discussion is about more than just whether some guy gets to hold on to a mispronunciation he "invented". ;)
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-05-22 12:20
I actually don't disagree with you in general, just in this particular case, because Wilhite was so specific and so consistent over many years, when I'm sure all these arguments came up repeatedly.

Whether he chose to violate convention intentionally or it was a "mistake" that he chose to stick with, as long as there's no contention as to his invention, I'm happy to abide by his wishes, even if others choose not to. It's not the first time there will be an outlier in English, and it won't be the last. :-)

Now, let's move on to discussing the proper pronunciation of pwn. :-)
Uh, "graphic" didn't used to be a common word, just like GIF.
"People don't have to adhere to your wishes, but that doesn't make them right."

It doesn't make them wrong, either, and putting it in such an absolute way goes against the course of basically all human language development. Words change, in meaning and pronunciation, and trying to assert that *one* pronunciation or meaning is the forever and universal pronunciation and meaning is trying to hold back the tide.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-05-22 13:13
It's from the 17th century, if the Apple dictionary is to be believed, from Greek via Latin, so I doubt anyone can really claim ownership there.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-05-22 13:14
Not hold back the tide (which implies that everyone always pronounces it with a hard G, whereas both are used in the wild) but to acknowledge the origin and act of creation, rather than to sweep that under the rug of history.
I don't agree that acknowledging the origin and act of creation requires deferring to their certain pronunciation choice. There are *lots* of ways of acknowledging the inventor.
The first recorded use (per the OED) is by Ben Jonson in 1640. He spelled it "graphick." Should we defer to that spelling?
Steve Nicholson  2013-05-24 08:33
"So, when referring to her, there's one pronunciation that's right, and all others are wrong."

Reminds me of:

Dr. Pulaski: "day-tuh, da-tuh, what's the difference?"

Data: "One is my name. The other is not."
Robert Godfrey  2013-05-27 10:43
"SSL" isn't an acronym; it's an initialism. All acronyms are initialisms. Here's the difference: Acronyms are pronounced as words. Initialisms are pronounced as the alphabetical characters' names in the initialism.

Admittedly, the distinction can blur, especially since usage may contradict appearance. "EPA" is an example of such an exception.

Are you suggesting we should say "je'day"? And if not, are you suggesting we should use G'day as a farewell, like "Good day"?

Because if you are, then you're wrong on both counts.

And since when did the creators of words get the final say in how they're pronounced? This is English; the wild west of language. Where words get butchered and the cattle are nervous!
Josh Centers  2013-05-22 06:55
We're saying you should have a gin and tonic and a relaxing giraffe ride. :-)
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-05-22 09:30
Have some ghoti.
George Stamas  2013-05-22 11:18
Ha! Good one. Perhaps those who seem upset with the way GIF is pronounced should just stick with using Graphic Interchange Format. Less controversy.
Wilhite doesn't understand dictionaries either. They are not dictators, they report common usage and pronunciation.
I'm going to pronounce it "fif" by taking the "gh" sound from "enough." Actually, I’m going to pronounce it "fife" taking the "i" sound from, well, "fife." Actually, I’m going to pronounce it "five" taking the "f" sound from "of."

So, "five" it is.

As to the larger argument, thinking that there's a eternal and universal correct way to pronounce something in the English language is the same as thinking that Shakespeare always spelled his name the same. Hint: neither is true.
Aaron Priven  2013-05-22 07:08
In 2013 GIF is pretty much obsolete and we should be using PNG, anyway.
Which, as part of the specs, is supposed to be pronounced "ping."

I shall pronounce it "P-Nug"
Robert  2013-05-22 14:30
Too late now. It is a hard "G" sound forever.
Michael E. Cohen  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-05-23 10:40
The Mac's text-to-speech engine pronounces it with a hard "G" for all of the American voices I have installed. But, the Felix voice for French gives you a soft "G" when it pronounces GIF.
Who cares about the creator, or whatever he wanted. Forget him. It's a hard G, no question. Pronounce it with a soft G in public and you will be ridiculed and laughed at as a clueless newbie.