How do you pronounce GIF?

The GIF is one of the most popular image formats on the internet, and most people are fairly confident that they know how to pronounce it. However, there are actually two common pronunciations: “giff,” with a hard “G” sound (like “gift”), and “jiff,” with a soft “G” sound (like the peanut butter brand).

In recent years, the war over the correct pronunciation has become quite heated. Steve Wilhite, the inventor of the format, gave his opinion in a 2013 New York Times interview.

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

Of course, that wasn’t the end of the story. Internet commenters quickly noted that GIF stands for “Graphics Interchange Format,” and since “graphics" has a hard G sound, “GIF" should have the same sound. Hard “G” zealots note that while Wilhite invented the format, he’s not the arbiter of the English language, so his opinion doesn’t matter.

Both sides of this debate are ignoring a fundamental principle of linguistics: Language changes through use, not through prescriptive laws. In other words, even if every English dictionary agreed with Wilhite, people would still use both pronunciations.

And, in fact, not every dictionary does agree. In announcing GIF as the U.S. word of the year for 2012, Oxford Dictionaries acknowledged that “GIF may be pronounced with either a soft g (as in giant) or a hard g (as in graphic). The programmers who developed the format preferred a pronunciation with a soft g (in homage to the commercial tagline of the peanut butter brand Jif, they supposedly quipped ‘choosy developers choose GIF’). However, the pronunciation with a hard g is now very widespread and readily understood.”

Furthermore, John Simpson, the chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, weighed in on Wilhite’s prescriptivist comments.

“A [word] coiner effectively loses control of a word once it’s out there; for instance, the coiner of ‘quark’ in the physics sense had intended it to rhyme with ‘cork,’ but general usage has resulted in it rhyming with ‘mark,’” Simpson told the Oxford University Press. “Whichever pronunciation you use for GIF, it helps if it’s the same for both the noun and the verb.”

For the time being, both pronunciations are correct—at least until one of the two pronunciations disappears from common usage.

Most people say "jee eye eff", or "giff", for short. The sound of "giff" is almost like the sound of "give".