Updated: Mar 18, 2022
Or, “Golly Gee!”
In this blog post, I will attempt to share some of my current thoughts and related ideas on "pronunciations".
There are plenty of words with varied, controversial pronunciations.
Consider brand names like Nike, Porsche, or Bayer. Or celebrity names like Liev Schreiber, Steve Buscemi, or Zooey Deschanel. Or common words like envelope, pecan, or often. Of course, the pronunciation of GIF is entertainingly controversial. Even the pronunciation of the word controversial is controversial! And I was really surprised when I discovered the pronunciation of the word geoduck.
But what is the proper way to pronounce these words, and who gets to decide?
When a word is first born into existence (coined) by someone, it is called a protologism (a newly created term possibly in narrow use but not yet acknowledged by the pubic). In time, if the word gains popularity and acceptance, the protologism might become a neologism (a term, word, or phrase that may be in the process of entering common use, but that has not yet been fully accepted into mainstream language). When a word is a proto- or neo- logism, the proper way to pronounce the word is...however the person that coined the word says that the word should be pronounced! The creator of the new word also gets to decide and dictate the pronunciation of the new word.
GIF, the file format and acronym (that stands for “Graphics Interchange Format”), was created & coined in 1987 by Steve Wilhite, a developer at CompuServe*. Since GIF was coined by Steve, Steve also got to choose how it should be pronounced - and he chose to pronounce it with a soft G (as he said, “Choosy developers choose JIF”, a play on the slogan of peanut butter brand Jif’s line “choosy mothers choose Jif”).
It doesn’t matter whether I agree with his pronunciation, or not. Steve created the word and therefore got to decide how the word should be pronounced.
And so, GIF should be pronounced with a soft G.
The Other Answer
Once a word is no longer a proto- or neo- logism and has entered common usage, it “belongs to the people” and can evolve in numerous ways. The meaning, spelling, and even pronunciation of a word can change a little or a lot based on the way the public use it. Consider antique, blush, and dismay, just a few of the many thousands of words that have changed pronunciation over time.
Further, numerous, recent polls have shown that most people today tend to pronounce GIF with a hard G.
And so, GIF should be pronounced with a hard G.
The Real Answer
There is no single, final answer. In practice, the pronunciation of GIF – or any acronym or word - evolves and varies by speaker population, in accordance with regional, occupational, or generational differences, or even a matter of personal preference.
And so, GIF should be pronounced however you like.
Anyway, the real value is in engoying the endless, entertaining debate and controversy.
*Fun fact: I worked with Steve at CompuServe from 1993-1997!