With the resurgence of the Graphics Interchange Format in its animated incarnation, the HOT debate about how to pronounce that gem of an acronym has also come to the front again. There are two fighters in the ring, here. One that is coached by the man most credited with bringing the GIF to the world, Steve Wilhite and his soft-G approach which is likened to the pronunciation of it as ‘jif’ as in Jif®™ brand peanut butter. The other fighter goes by the name of Vox Populi and hails from Parts Unknown, where his people pronounce GIF with a hard G.
By now you’ve probably heard an argument or two about how to say this now-household word, and you may have made up your mind how you are going to say it. If you’re with Steve Wilhite, keep an open mind during this essay. If you’re of the Vox Populi, tuck this in your back pocket to wave at the Wilhite Warriors. I propose that the proper way to say the acronym is with a hard-G.
The Historical Evidence
The phrase itself is an acronym of Graphics Interchange Format and was coined by people working at CompuServe, way back in 1987. That’s possibly the year that you were born. (Are you the Dancing Baby model?)
Often, Steve Wilhite is credited as being the inventor of the format, but he really isn’t. He may have come up with a novel way to apply the Lempel–Ziv–Welch (LZW) lossless data-compression algorithm to an image, but it merely builds on the LZW algorithm patented by Sperry Corporation¹, which merged into Burroughs Corporation, which then became Unisys. This was the 80’s when companies ate each other like sharks eating minnows. Then there was a whole mess about licensing the format, and some bizarre methods of licensing it were agreed upon between Unisys and CompuServe², and pretty much nobody else. But the fact remains, there is NO patent for the GIF as a format or specification, therefore there is no inventor, as such. Booya!
Speaking of specifications, which I am, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has published the specifications for the main two versions of the format; GIF-87a³ and GIF-89a4. GIF-87a is the earlier of the two, and shows that the phrase ‘Graphic Interchange Format‘ and the acronym ‘GIF‘ were trademarked by CompuServe.
It should be noted that the specifications are copyrighted by CompuServe as well. Unfortunately, you can’t really trademark the name of a intangible service – that requires a service mark as noted in the GIF-87a specification³. CompuServe DID actually register GIF as a service mark at one point, however that registration is now dead, because CompuServe, “…did not file an acceptable declaration under Section 8.”5. The specific combination of the letters G,I, and F as a name for something, is not copyrighted or registered!
Summary: GIF was never properly trademarked, service marked, or marked as territory by peeing on it. So, no one person or company can lay enough claim to the term to decide how the rest of the world will say GIF!
“Oh, so it wasn’t in the specifications. What does that matter, Guy?” you might scoff. Well, it seems that CompuServe was also the progenitor of the Portable Network Graphic, which they did take the pains to specify how the acronym should be pronounced in PNG’s specifications:
This International Standard specifies a datastream and an associated file format, Portable Network Graphics (PNG, pronounced “ping”), for a lossless, portable, compressed individual computer graphics image transmitted across the Internet.6
Wilwhite may well have intended for the format to be pronounced with the soft-G way back in the day, as he does today7. People often cite that CompuServe employees used the phrase, ‘Choosy developers choose GIF’, referencing the peanut butter, which may be true or false. If you only delve as deep as Steven Olsen’s, The GIF Pronunciation Page, you might think it is true, because there is a quote there saying, “The pronunciation of “GIF” is specified in the GIF specification to be “jif”…”8. Olsen references the Graphics File Formats FAQ9 as his proof that it was in the GIF specifications. Dude, it’s not³,4.
Either way, hasn’t this format had enough legal troubles without infringing on the trademark of a sandwich spread company? By misaligning the term with the trademarked name Jif®™, I propose that the infringement nullifies the justification of using the soft-G, simply because it fits in a stolen jingle.
Oh, there’s another CompuServe employee who wants to weigh in on this argument! Bob Berry, in an e-mail exchange with then Math Undergrad, Tim ‘Timmy’ Haynes, shows his response from Bob:
GIF has always been pronounced “jif”, since it was first released in 1987.<br>
Oh yeah? And who the H-E-Double-Hockey-Sticks are you Bob? Okay, you had everything to do with CSHOW11, a pioneering program to work with GIFs and other images, but you still didn’t invent the GIF, did you Bob? Then you don’t get to decide what comes out of my mouth either. But you’re still cool for making that software.
Obviously, there is no real historical proof that it is soft-G GIF. In Your Face!
The Linguistic Evidence
With the absence of historical evidence rivaled only by my absences from high school, we must turn to the rules of the English language.
Our lingua franca as it were. The Mother Tongue. Our vulgar language bestowed upon us by a nation of shopkeepers and imperialists. Yeah, THAT English, tosser! (I’m sorry if that’s not a nice word, I’m Canadian. In fact, I apologize for this whole article if it offends you. It’s right, but I’m still sorry.)
Why English? CompuServe is an American company, so let’s pretend that Americans speak English. They don’t – they speak, ” ‘Murican, ya idjit!” (Dear Americans, I really DO love you. I’m sorry…again. Your Canadian friend, Guy.)
Now follow closely, as it gets simple really quickly. GIF is an acronym, not an initialization12. What’s the difference? Both are made of the first letter of each word comprising the term. However, an initialization does not lend itself easily to being pronounced as a word. Instead, you enunciate each individual letter. Like in the terms CIA, or FBI, or NBC. You could try, but you might end up being forcibly medicated. Acronyms that lend themselves nicely to enunciation as a word include SCUBA, LOL, JPEG, PNG, oh…and GIF.
We agree? It’s an acronym? Cool, hang on.
Acronyms, being comprised of the first letter of the words comprising it, take the enunciation of the letter as it is in situ. Graphic starts with a hard-G. Got it? “Oh ho!”, you exclaim haughtily, “What about the P for Photograph? Isn’t that phonetically pronounced like an F?” Pffft. Go back and read the paragraph differentiating acronyms from initializations! And I quote:
However, an initialization does not lend itself easily to being pronounced as a word.13
JPhEG does not roll off the tongue like Jay-PEG does, does it? I say no! The Ph sound in this case does NOT lend itself easily to being pronounced as a word. I read a quote about that somewhere.
Not good enough for you? Let’s throw down on some phonetics and phonology then! Since there definitely is two generally accepted pronunciations of GIF, because if there wasn’t we wouldn’t be having this conversation, there is some variation. Since you’ll probably be understood using either variation, there is some freedom of choice here. And because the two ways of saying it sound sort of similar, they are allophones. So what do we have in the end? That’s right…a free variation allophone14
Oh, sorry, free variation allophone means either way of saying it is alright. As you were. Go do something important now. Maybe do something to help those poor people getting slobberknocked by tornadoes all over the US. Or sweatshop workers all over the east. Thanks for coming out.
So, what’s your word on the word? Are you all GIF or all GIF? It’s still up for FUN debate, but if you get all heated up about this topic, just read the comments and relax. Goosfrabra.
¹ Welch, Terry A., (1985) U.S. Patent No. 4,558,302. Washington, DC: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
² Unisys, (2 September 1999). LZW Software and Patent Information Web Site LZW Licenses Available from Unisys. In Unisys. Retrieved May 22, 2013, from http://web.archive.org/web/20090608194513/http://www.unisys.com/about__unisys/lzw/lzw__license__english.htm
³ CompuServe, (1987). GIF(tm) Graphics Interchange Format(tm) – A standard defining a mechanism for the storage and transmission of raster-based graphics information. In World Wide Web Consortium. Retrieved May 22, 2013, from http://www.w3.org/Graphics/GIF/spec-gif87.txt
4 CompuServe, (1989). Graphics Interchange Format(sm) Version 89a. In World Wide Web Consortium. Retrieved May 22, 2013, from http://www.w3.org/Graphics/GIF/spec-gif89a.txt
5 CompuServe, (1987) Registration Number 1,948,110. Washington, DC: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. In Trademark Status & Document Retrieval. Retrieved May 22, 2013, from http://tmsearch.uspto.gov/bin/showfield?f=doc&state=4808:wonrg2.2.20 Dear Mr. Wilhite, yes I agree it is generally recognized you invented the GIF, but this is just a position paper that takes an extremist, hopefully satirical, look at the gif-jif argument. I’m sorry.
6 Adler, Mark, et al, (10 November 2003). Portable Network Graphics (PNG) Specification (Second Edition). In World Wide Web Consortium. Retrieved 24 May 2013, from http://png.cybermirror.org/spec/iso/index-object.html#
7 O’Leary, Amy, (21 May 2013) An Honor for the Creator of the GIF. In The New York Times. Retrieved May 22, 2013, from
8 Olsen, Steve., (2002) The GIF Pronunciation Page. In OlsenHome.com. Retrieved May 22, 2013, from http://www.olsenhome.com/gif/
9 Murray, James D., (20 January 1997). Graphics File Formats FAQ (Part 1 of 4): General Graphics Format Questions. In Internet FAQ Archive. Retrieved May 22, 2013, from http://www.faqs.org/faqs/graphics/fileformats-faq/part1/index.html
10 Haynes, Tim S., (24 December 1994). Gif Pronunciation. In The FoRK Archives. Retrieved May 22, 2013, from http://www.xent.com/FoRK-archive/july97/0045.html
11 Yeah, you stopped checking my citing back at 1, didn’t you. Okay, well CSHOW still has a website at http://www.cshowplace.com/cshows.htm
12 I read that somewhere important. http://bit.ly/14SHZEY
13 I said that. Just there. Just now! It’s a quote, it has to be true.
14 Not falling for the ‘Let Me Google That For you Trick’? Okay, well, it’s on Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allophone and now you’ll say that because I cited Wikipedia my entire argument is invalid.
Image Credits: GIF key via Shutterstock, Phoneme Determination Chart via Wikipedia, Truancy Hotline My Sweetheart the Drunk, via Flickr.