It has been called "the great schism of the 21st century" and "the most absurd religious war in geek history."
debate over how to pronounce GIF, which stands for Graphics Interchange
Format, re-emerged this week when Steve Wilhite, the inventor of the
widely used Web illustration, declared it should be pronounced "jif,"
like the brand of peanut butter, rather than with a hard G sound.
made the statement first in an interview, then in an acceptance speech
at the annual Webby Awards on Tuesday, where he received a lifetime
achievement award. Wilhite incited a debate that generated 17,000 posts
on Twitter, 50 news articles and plenty of tongue-in-cheek outrage.
can have my hard 'G' when you pry it from my cold, dead hands," Tracy
Rotton, a Web developer from Washington, D.C., wrote on Twitter.
what is going on? Elizabeth Pyatt, a linguist at Penn State University,
has a theory: Cultures typically associate a "standard" pronunciation
as a marker of status. Mispronouncing a word - even a technical term -
can cause feelings of shame and inadequacy. If people believe there is a
logical basis for their pronunciation, they are not apt to give it up.
In the case of the GIF, there is logic to saying it with the hard G used to pronounce "graphic."
created the file format in 1987 when he was working as a programmer for
CompuServe, the nation's first major online service. The company wanted
to display color weather maps, but existing image technologies took up
too much bandwidth for slow dial-up connections. Wilhite thought he
"I saw the format I wanted in my head and then I
started programming," he said in an email. Wilhite primarily uses email
to communicate now, after suffering a stroke in 2000.
The first image he created was a picture of an airplane.
Today, GIFs are commonly used for short animations on the Web.
night, Wilhite was greeted onstage at the Webby Awards by David Karp,
the 26-year-old founder of Tumblr who this week sold his company to
Yahoo for $1.1 billion.
The Webby Awards, a 17-year-old annual
event where more than 60 awards are given for everything from online
journalism to design, has a timesaving tradition: All acceptance
speeches must be five words or less.
Wilhite displayed his
five-word speech on a screen above the stage: "It's Pronounced 'JIF' not
'GIF."' The audience roared with approval, and it appeared as though
the question was settled.
Not so. Those who had been pronouncing
GIF with a hard G were shocked, or as one blog headline put it,
"Flabber-jasted." Wilhite was attacked as a "soft-g zealot," and
dissenters said his decree made as much sense as calling graphics
White House staff members also weighed in on Twitter
to remind the country that the Obama administration had already ruled on
the subject, in a chart released on April 26, which explained the
administration's Tumblr strategy and highlighting GIFs, noting the hard G
The uproar was a boon for a certain peanut butter
brand. The J.M. Smucker Co., which owns Jif, quickly produced an
animation that merged their product with a pronunciation guide and
posted it online. One Twitter user asked, "how much does Jif love Steve
"We're nuts about him today," the bread spread responded.
editor of the Oxford English Dictionary was noncommittal, writing on a
tech blog that the dictionary accepts both pronunciations.
Pyatt of Penn State believes that the debate is not likely to be settled anytime soon.
change isn't always easily controlled," she said, "I suspect if most
people are now saying GIF I think that pronunciation is probably going
to be the one that survives. It may not be fair to the person who
created it, but that's just how language and community works."
© 2013, The New York Times News Service