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Why We Can’t Stop Arguing About How to Pronounce GIF

Few linguistic debates have raged on more consistently than the one surrounding the proper pronunciation of the acronym, GIF. Fortunately, YouTuber and maker of things Tom Scott produced a video finally clearing up whether the word is pronounced with a hard or soft “g” sound. Once and for all. Kind of.

GIF, or Graphics Interchange Format, has been around since 1987, but, of course, retains its divisive pronunciation to this day. As Scott notes, American computer scientist Steve Wilhite coined the acronym. Wilhite led the CompuServe team that invented the GIF—the now widely used moving-image format—and says its soft “g” pronunciation is a deliberate reference to Jif peanut butter.

In fact, as Scott points out, Wilhite is extraordinarily adamant about pronouncing GIF like Jif. So much so that during a 2013 Webby Awards acceptance speech, Wilhite simply put up a gigantic slide that read, “It’s pronounced ‘JIF,’ not ‘GIF,'” and said nothing else. (See a clip of the speech immediately below. Regardless of your GIF stance, the moment’s fun to watch.)

Despite Wilhite’s protests, however, Scott notes pronouncing GIF with a hard “g” is still more popular. Not only that, but the Oxford English Dictionary also accepts both pronunciations as correct. (Wilhite, of course, says the Dictionary is totally wrong to allow for both pronunciations, however.)

As for the actual answer as to which pronunciation of GIF is correct? Unfortunately, Scott ends the video without ever providing a definitive ruling. But the fact that the acronym’s inventor says GIF is indeed pronounced with a soft “g” should lend it indomitable weight, right? Or maybe Scott is right about language being a living thing that changes over time regardless of intention. It’s hard to say.

An image showing how to pronounce GIF

The Webby Awards

Featured Image: Tom Scott