Why I will always pronounce "GIF" like "gift" and not like "Jif"

Recently Steve Wilhite, the creator of GIF (Graphics Interchange Format), tried to settle once and for all the age-old (well, 26-year-old, since the invention of GIF in 1987) question of how to pronounce “GIF”, claiming that it is pronounced as “jif”:

"The Oxford English Dictionary accepts both pronunciations," Mr. Wilhite said. "They are wrong. It is a soft ‘G,’ pronounced ‘jif.’ End of story."

Of course, whole “debate” is kind of silly, because it doesn’t really matter how it’s pronounced.

Or does it?

My first memories of GIF

I was in college in the late 1980s when a friend of mine first introduced me to the world of GIF files. Since he pronounced “GIF” like “gift”, I followed suit. Other friends also pronounced it that way, and I simply assumed that was “correct”.


It was in the early 1990s when at my first job, I noticed that a colleague of mine pronounced “GIF” like “Jif” instead. I was stunned, of course. Meanwhile, at this very time, there was an uproar over the patent enforcement by Unisys on the LZW compression algorithm used by GIF. I was outraged by the development myself, and chose to minimize use of the GIF format; I used JPEG and the new PNG formats instead for any new image file creation.

It was around this time that I learned that the official pronunciation of “GIF” was supposed to be “jif”.

But I didn’t care.

I knew that there were people pronouncing it either way, and I was already used to one way, and nobody was enforcing the “correct” way, and I was rarely even saying the word any more, since I was not using the file format for personal or work purposes. In the past two decades, I don’t believe I’ve said the word more than a dozen times, but each time, I stubbornly used the “gift” pronunciation.


If everyone were saying “jif” all the time, I would have changed my pronunciation. This is how language works. The point of language is to communicate with others, and if nobody knew what I was saying because I was pronouncing a word wrong, then I would have to change my pronunciation.

It means little to me what the inventor of the word intended, because language serves everyone who uses it meaningfully, not just the inventor.

When you create something, you don’t own it any more. It belongs to the world.

This is considered by some to be a controversial point of view, but I think it is philosophically correct as a starting point of discussion. Yes, sophisticated systems of property rights have been created and do serve a useful purpose, but always in context of the fundamental outlook, and as a constraint in the name of greater benefit to society.

The continuing debates over American copyright and patent laws, for example, illustrate that these laws are not set in stone but are a result of discussions and compromises among different interests and philosophies.

It is ironic, of course, that more people seem to care about the pronunciation of “GIF” than about the old patent controversy surrounding the format. Then again, as a limited monopoly, the patent on LZW did expire in the US in 2003 (and elsewhere in 2004).

Ownership of language?

If you are reading this and are French, I’m curious what your view is of ownership of language, because the Académie française has officially controlled the French language since 1635, and there is no analogous institution in the US.

Authorial intent?

The debate over “GIF” may seem trivial, but I think it is a good starting point for those who are interested in issues of ownership and authorial intent, as applied to many more important issues, such as “correct” interpretation or use of literature, of music, of law. I have been particularly interested in this debate in the context of music, and my attitude comes from grappling with Charles Rosen’s writings over the years; as you can imagine, debate over “composer’s intent” can get very heated.


Dictionaries of English today accept both pronunciations of “GIF”. Furthermore, some informal polls I have seen even come up with the result that most people who participate in such polls favor my pronunciation. So I will continue using my pronunciation.

But really, it doesn’t matter how you pronounce “GIF”. The existence of alternate pronunciations of words is not a threat to language. “Either”, “tomato”, “GIF”: let’s call the whole thing off!

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