Skepticism

Your Argument About How to Pronounce GIF is Wrong

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Transcript:

I am old, for the internet. For YouTube, especially. I was born in 1980, a mere 7 years before Steve Wilhite developed the Graphics Interchange Format, .gif. And so when I started saving files of that type along with Tiffs and bitmaps and jpegs, I called it “(JIFF).” Why? I don’t know. I had never heard it spoken before — it wasn’t exactly a subject that came up often on the local news, or on X-Men the animated series or whatever else I was watching when I was ten. My brain saw “gif” and said “JIFF.” Maybe it was thinking of gin, or giraffes. I don’t know. It doesn’t matter.

When it DID eventually come up in conversation with another computer nerd friend, he said, “I thought it was pronounced “GIFF”.” I said, “Oh, is it?” He said, “I don’t know, I’ve never heard it said out loud before.” I said “Huh, me neither, maybe you’re right.” Then we moved on with our lives because we were ten years old and who gives a fuck.

Imagine my surprise 25 years later when otherwise intelligent people are bickering over this on the internet. I honestly don’t care which way you say it, but it is my fucking brand to be annoyed when I see bad arguments being made, and that’s what today’s video is all about. I’m going to go through the most frequent arguments I see made in this “debate” and tell you why every one is completely stupid and you need to stop using it because it’s embarrassing for you.

Before I dive in, let me point out that this all happened because Dictionary.com tweeted that GIF is pronounced with a soft “G” and Merriam-Webster replied with shock. This is the problem with “hilarious brand twitter accounts” getting in the way of good practice. Neither of these accounts are correct, and I’ll explain why in my first counterargument:

NUMBER 1: it’s pronounced “JIFF” because the guy who invented it says so.

It’s true, Steve Wilhite is on record as saying that it’s a soft “J”. This is known as “prescriptivist” thinking — the idea that language should be predetermined by a great authority and then everyone else should adhere to whatever that authority says. It’s a good way for a language to die, because that’s not how language works. Language is a living thing, that changes constantly. I may find it annoying that people now say something “begs the question” when they really mean to say “makes me think of a question,” or “literally” when they mean “figuratively but emphasized,” but it’s a losing battle to try to tell people what words and phrases mean. If that’s the way the general public is now using those words, then that’s what those words mean. What it’s really about is whether or not people understand you. If you say “I literally died” and people think you actually died, that’s a problem. But if they understand that you are still alive and just trying to emphasize what happened to you, then you’ve succeeded and that’s what that word means now.

A lot of people hate this about language. I used to! Because I’m a writer and an English-language aficionado, so I used to take great pride in the fact that I know what words really mean and it made me look better and more educated to use them properly. But that was a misplaced pride. No one cares. Use language the way language is used. Someone using a more recent term, or a recently changed definition, isn’t stupider or crasser or leading to the destruction of the beautiful English language.

That’s why dictionaries are meant to be (and at their best when they are) descriptivist, not prescriptivist. Descriptivist means that they describe what they see society doing, to better help people who want to be understood — not demanding that people use words a certain way, but to say “most people mean this when they use this word.” If Dictionary.com and Merriam-Webster were doing their jobs, they wouldn’t make a “last word of authority” statement on how a word should be pronounced, only to say that some people pronounce it one way while other people pronounce it the other way.

So yeah, it doesn’t matter what Steve thinks about whether it’s GIFF or JIFF. Steve made the format and released it to the general public. It’s not his puppy. He can’t demand we call it what he calls it. It’s everybody’s puppy now. Call it what you want.

NUMBER 2: It’s pronounced “GIFF” because the “G” stands for “graphics.”

Yeah, that’s just not how acronyms work, sorry William Shatner. No one needs to “go back to school,” you perpetual jackass (and that is why I hate this entire “debate,” because everyone thinks they’re so much smarter than the people on the other side. Jesus Christ shut up already). Acronyms, unlike initialisms like “IBM,” are pronounced as a word, so the letters in the word adhere to the rules of the language the word is based in. The “U” in “SCUBA” stands for “underwater” but we don’t say “SCUBBA.” NATO stands for “North Atlantic Treaty Organization” but we don’t say “NAT(SHWA)”. And sorry, my dear friend Phil Plait, but it doesn’t only apply to vowels or else we would call light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation a “LASSER.” There are thousands of other examples that show that this just doesn’t hold up.

NUMBER 3: “JIFF” makes people think you’re talking about peanut butter.

Where to even begin with this. Like, so many people have tweeted this at me that I am SHOOK. Are you guys okay? Seriously, are you okay? Are you all on those legal teams that, like, go after a mom and pop fruit stand called Apple’s because you think they’re infringing on a computer company’s trademark? If I told you I was going to send you a JIFF would you seriously be sitting by your mailbox waiting for a fucking jar of peanut butter to show up? Holy shit, are you okay???

Also, as Lizard Rumsfeld points out on Twitter (which I did not know), the developers wanted to play off the peanut butter slogan by saying “Choosy developers choose JIFF.” Again, it doesn’t matter what they originally wanted it called, but it’s an interesting bit of trivia.

On the other hand, I actually have been confused when I heard friends say that they had sent someone a GIFF, because it sounds almost exactly like “gift.” Does that make “JIFF” right? No, but it does make it better in my opinion, but again, it doesn’t matter what I think. It matters what people are using.

Now here are the only two arguments that are worthwhile. NUMBER 1: Pronouncing it “JIFF” can cause confusion due to the .jif file.

I’ll be honest, I had never heard of .jif until this blew up on Twitter. Thanks to SexualScientist on Twitter for pointing it out. Wikipedia informed me that it’s a JPEG format that is rarely used due to significant shortcomings, and that’s why for the most part we just use files ending in .jpg or .jpeg. If .jif was actually used, this would in fact be a good argument for encouraging people to say “GIFF.” It’s not, so it’s really not a big deal but I have to say it is a point in their favor. Half a point maybe. Some small fraction of a point.

NUMBER 2: Most people pronounce it GIFF.

At last, we arrive at the descriptivist argument, and it’s actually one that I never, ever see people use in online arguments over this. I suspect the reason is this: the people who engage in this argument want to be seen as the most logical and reasonable, and while they value scientific thinking, they don’t understand or respect the way linguistics actually work. In 2017 a survey on Stack Overflow found that the majority of people said “GIFF,” except in India and parts of Africa. Those are all programmers, but back in 2014 Mashable surveyed 30,000 people from nearly 200 different countries and found that 70% said “GIFF,” so it holds up.

And that’s the only thing that really matters. Most people say “GIFF,” and that will probably continue into the future as those of us who say “JIFF” slowly die off. Whether or not the format dies first is another thing altogether — that would also end the argument. But yeah, if you want to be understood by the most number of people, you could claim that “GIFF” is the way to go.

That said, 30% of the population saying “JIFF” means that it’s common enough that you should still be understood by everyone. It’s not like saying “me me”, which Mashable found a shocking 18% of people do, instead of “meme.”

So that’s another fraction of a point to the “GIFF” side.

And that’s it, those are the only two semi-decent arguments. Both of them point toward GIFF, so you may wonder why I continue to say “JIFF.” Easy: because I’ve literally been doing it for 25 years. It’s not worth the effort to break that habit when everyone still gets what I mean. The only reason I would? It would be to prevent those 70% of people from scoffing every time I say it and pretending like they have a moral high ground over me because they think I’m saying that a friend texted me a funny jar of peanut butter the other day.

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Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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3 Comments

  1. Ummm. If usage is infinitely self-justified; wouldn’t we be required to conform, rather than be obscurantist pedants? The kind who think that ‘tax’ and ‘ask’ don’t rhyme, or that nuclear isn’t pronounced nukular?

    If the first people to actually speak the word, the ones who learned it from its inventor, have one pronunciation, shouldn’t that carry more weight? But how many ever heard hims say it at all? All of this would be silly if the word had spread through speech rather than cyber-writing. I’m not at all sure that words that aren’t spread by speech might not be subject to a whole different set of variation.

  2. No, no one is “required to conform” to language, that’s the point. “Tax” does rhyme with “ask” in some dialects, and here’s a fun thing: it was common pronunciation for it to be that way in Middle English, i.e. long before you were born and anyone taught you to pronounce it another way. Does someone speaking Middle English have the right to demand you pronounce it “axe?” Are they stupider than you? Or are you stupider than them for pronouncing it the “new” way?

  3. I admit I have a tough time with “literally” since the two meanings are literally opposite. And it leaves us with an extra word for “figuratively” and no word that unambiguously means “literally” (older meaning). It’s like if turning the steering wheel in a car clockwise causes the car to turn right and turning it anti-clockwise causes older cars to turn left and newer ones to turn right – and these newer cars just can’t turn left!

    Gif, on the other hand? That’s very much a to-may-toe/to-mah-to thing. It doesn’t matter. I say gif (hard-g) because my first language is Danish where the soft-g sound doesn’t exist in any non-loan word. (And I suspect that’s why the hard-g pronunciation is most common world-wide – a lot of languages likely either don’t have the soft-g sound or don’t associate it with the letter g). :-)

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