I thought the debate ended when the file format went obsolete, but then GIF came back as an animated file format. And with it came the argument of how to pronounce GIF. Is it JIF or GIF?
Steve Wilhite, the inventor of the file format, pronounced it JIF, and in the 80s, so did just about everyone else. In the mid 90s, pronouncing it like GIFT without the “T” became common, the logic being that the “G” stands for “Graphics,” not “Jraphics.”
What is a GIF?
GIF is a cross-platform graphics file format introduced by the online service Compuserve in 1987 and revised in 1989. Computer graphics were advancing rapidly at the time, thanks in part to the Amiga and Atari ST, and the then-new IBM PS/2 and color Macintosh. These computers all operated at similar resolutions.
But moving graphics between them was a problem. All of them had different de facto standards for graphics formats. Some of them were similar, but none were completely compatible. Also, their graphics capabilities differed somewhat. The Atari ST could display up to 16 colors out of a palette of 512. The Amiga could display 64 or even 4,096 colors out of a palette of 4,096, albeit with limitations. The PS/2 and Mac could display 256 colors out of a palette of 262,144.
Compuserve created GIF to work around all of this. At the time, Compuserve was the world’s largest online service, and they saw an opportunity. If they could get people to spend more time downloading graphics to view offline, they would make more money.
GIF stood for Graphics Interchange Format, and it was cross-platform from the get-go. If you created an image on an Amiga and converted it to GIF, a GIF viewer on an Atari ST or Apple IIgs could render a very reasonable approximation of that image. It would lack some of the fidelity of the Amiga original, but should be very recognizable. For that matter, depending on the nature of the image, an 8-bit computer like a Commodore 64 might be able to render a recognizable approximation of the original using its 16-color palette. And an IBM PS/2 or a color Mac should be able to render a virtually identical version of the image. For that matter, a PC with an EGA card and monitor could display a reasonable approximation of the image. It used whatever computer you had to display the image as best it could.
The format served as something of an equalizer. Within a few years, the resolution of 320×200 with 256 colors became a standard. But until then, it meant people with their fancy new VGA cards could view and enjoy graphics created on an Amiga or ST or IIgs.
Compuserve gave it away, treating it as an open format even though competitors like AOL and Prodigy would benefit from it. The more popular GIF became, the more they stood to benefit from having the largest library of GIFs. And having created the format and already having thousands of images on its service to convert, Compuserve could give itself a huge head start.
GIF remained a curiosity for most of the 1980s. The process of loading the data from disk and translating between color palettes was pretty slow. On an XT-class PC with CGA or EGA, you could watch the image paint line by line, taking a good minute or two to display. On an 8-bit computer like a Commodore 64, rendering an image was painfully slow, taking several minutes. It became more practical as computers and modems became faster.
If you had a computer and a modem and called BBSs, you knew what GIFs were, and of course in the 90s modems became more and more widespread. GIF overtook most proprietary file formats, but remained a solution in search of a problem for most people. It seemed kind of wasteful to spend thousands of dollars on a 386 computer and hundreds more on a high-speed modem and primarily use it for looking at pictures. There were so many other things to do with it, like play games.
Then the World Wide Web came along. It was cross-platform. GIF was cross-platform. The Web needed a graphics format. It seemed like a good match. So the web used GIF extensively at first.
GIF fell out of favor due to its limitations and because Unisys decided to try to monetize the LZW compression method that it utilized, a problem that also led to the creation of the Unix-like utility gzip. But never completely went away. While JPEG and PNG often have advantages for still images, GIF remains in widespread use, especially as an animated format. Plus the relevant patents expired in 2004, so it can once again be considered an open format.
GIF or JIF?
GIF stands for “Graphics Interchange Format.” In English, the letter “G” can be pronounced as a hard G, as in the word “gift,” or as a soft g, as in the word “page.” Then there are words like “garage,” with a hard g at the beginning of the word and a soft g at the end.
That’s the problem with the English language. Rule number 1 is that there’s an exception to every rule.
The argument for GIF
Proponents for the hard-G GIF, as in “gift,” point out several of arguments in favor of their preference.
- GIF is spelled like “gift” without the “t” on the end
- GIF stands for “graphics,” which isn’t pronounced “jraffics.”
- In English, the soft-g is more likely to appear at the end of words while a hard-g is more likely to appear at the front
- Words in English using a soft-g at the beginning are usually derived from words adopted from other languages, where GIF is not
When I first read about the GIF file format in a computer magazine in 1988 or so, I assumed the pronunciation was with a hard g. That’s common when people learn a word through reading rather than hearing it spoken.
The argument for JIF
In the fall of 1988, I started meeting people who owned computers and actually used them. A lot of them had modems, and computers fast enough to render GIFs. And in talking to them, they always pronounced it “JIF.” Like the brand of peanut butter.
Why pronounce it JIF?
- Steve Wilhite, the creator of the file format, pronounced it that way from the beginning, and he continued to pronounce it that way until he died in 2022
- Compuserve developers had a saying in-house: “Choosy developers choose GIF,” playing off the advertising slogan for the brand of peanut butter
- The soft-g sounds more natural in speech. The hard-g sounds like someone with a speech problem saying “gift.”
- It’s the longer-standing, more traditional pronunciation
How to pronounce GIF: Which is proper?
Most dictionaries list both pronunciations, though they tend to disagree on which one is the primary.
In English, it’s not uncommon to have multiple accepted pronunciations for words. Someone from the UK will pronounce the word “garage” differently from someone from the States. In the UK they’ll use two long as, like “gary.” In the States, we say it as if we’re speaking French. If I use the UK pronunciation when talking to another Missourian, the other person might think I’m being silly, but they’ll probably understand what I’m saying. Or eventually figure it out.
There are regional differences too. In the South, for example, people are known for dropping the g at the end of words. Politicians will often drop gs to try to sound more down to earth. “How are you doin’?” People in New England will drop the g at the end of words too, but it’s different words. I once worked for a guy from Rhode Island. He said “doing,” not “doin’.” But he also said “anythin’,” not “anything.” I’ve never heard a southerner say “anythin’.” I’ve also noticed that British singers will drop the g in “thing,” but not in “doing.” It’s a curiosity.
So I’m not going to tell you how to pronounce GIF. I’ve been using the soft g since at least 1989. I never had a conversation with anyone who insisted on a hard g until late 1995, when I first took a class on web design. But when I asked my wife and kids just now, they all said they pronounce it with a hard g. Though none of them were adamant about it. At least not to my face. But for all I know, my kids are off telling their friends what a boomer their dad is because he says “JIF.”
I will observe that if you pronounce GIF with a soft-g, you probably had a computer in the 80s. If you use the hard-g, you probably didn’t, and the people who did might think of you as a n00b. You might in turn say they’re elitist. And the argument will continue.