Last week, an email popped into my mailbox with a simple subject: “Jif vs. GIF.” Its sender asked if I was interested in hearing about a peanut butter producer’s interest in “setting the record straight on how to pronounce GIF.”
That’s not quite what I got. The powers that be at Smucker’s advertising department thought we at Ars Technica might bite on their proposal that a new jar of Jif would put the years-long pronunciation debate to rest. Instead, I ended up spending too much time talking about, contemplating, and researching the pronunciation of the letter G—and of other invented brands and acronyms in general.
Does Wilhite have it right?
If you’re wondering, the J.M. Smucker Company—known on the street as Smucker’s—comes down on the “hard-G” side of this debate. The company does this in order to support its latest advertising campaign that says—wouldn’t you know it—the soft-G version has already existed for decades in the form of a massive peanut butter brand. Thus, the people at Smucker’s say, don’t mix up the two. Soft G “jiff” for food; hard G “giff” for an animated image format that came into vogue during GeoCities’ heyday.
They seek to differentiate by partnering with Giphy, a GIF-specific search engine that powers Twitter’s default GIF-embed system, among others. This works in Jif’s favor, since Giphy COO Adam Leibsohn made clear in 2015 that he pronounces both Giphy and GIF with a hard G.
When I was presented with the Jif campaign’s news (timed with sales of a limited-edition jar of peanut butter), I asked if I could speak with anybody who’d worked at Jif for some time and could thus weigh in on managing a brand like Jif during the era when a popular computer-imaging acronym exploded into common English vernacular. I’d hoped this conversation would add nuance to the debate over how people choose to pronounce the letter G.
Instead, I received a phone call from a director of marketing at Smucker’s (the corporate parents of Jif, Adam’s, and other popular peanut-based spreads) who made it clear that this marketing push emerged in the past year when a new group began running Smucker’s advertising campaigns. The representative dodged my pointed questions about the etymology of the acronym, particularly how the company reckons with the creator of the GIF, Steve Wilhite, affirming his original pronunciation intent during a 2013 award acceptance speech:
Jif’s marketing-speak answers to my questions were mostly frustrating because Wilhite has cited this very brand of peanut butter as his reason for using the soft-G sound in the first place. Wilhite developed the GIF during his tenure as an engineer at CompuServe, back when users connected to that ISP via piddly 300bps connections. As Charlie Reading, one of Wilhite’s colleagues at the time, attested in a 1997 edition of the NetBITS newsletter:
Steve always pronounced it “jiff” and would correct those who pronounced it with a hard G. “Choosy developers choose GIF” (spinning off of a historically popular peanut butter commercial).
Hence, you’re likely to find the earliest public references to the GIF, or Graphics Interchange Format, among developer notes from CompuServe’s heyday as a major American ISP.
What’s interesting here is that Wilhite chose a memorable reference point to reinforce how to pronounce this acronym in its youth—and to get it down to a catchier, single-syllable word than the three-syllable mess of “gee-I-eff.” It’s a great reminder that invented terms’ acceptance hinges on an easy cultural point to grab on to. Without any other single-syllable words in the English language that start with a G and end with a combination of a soft-I and a voiceless labiodental fricative (which, in English, is best known as an “f” or a “ph”), Wilhite opted for catchy phrases to reinforce how he wanted “GIF” to roll off the tongue. (As opposed to getting stuck to the roof of your mouth, which you need to access with your tongue for the voiced velar plosive sound of a hard G.)
If Jif wants to turn the tide of this debate, they could have opted for something a little more clever than the aforementioned limited edition bottle. I have included a brief image gallery below, which I’ve captioned with explanations, to make my point:
Compounding the above issue, this is a limited-edition jar of peanut butter, as opposed to a nationwide supermarket launch. Thus, the J.M. Smucker Company’s intended explanations will more likely be seen as itty-bitty thumbnails. To rectify this, the Jif marketing team has launched a dedicated portal at Giphy, though even this portal offers a concession to the core linguistic issue. This 7.4MB GIF resembles a Sesame Street language explainer and includes mentions of popular words that start with a soft G (giraffe, giant) before additionally listing GIF.
From this point on, we have a wealth of available data and opinions on linguistics, popular use, and persnickety opinions. On the one hand, this incredible explainer from linguist Gretchen McCulloch cites a sweeping study by linguistics Professor Michael Dow. It ultimately concludes how inconclusive the English language is in determining the letter G’s sound wherever it’s found in a word, and each time it finds a possible trend among its studied 40,000 words, that point is refuted by another similarly common thread.
“When you see a new word starting with ‘gi,’ your previous exposure to ‘gi’ words is basically telling you to flip a coin—it’s just as likely that you’ll decide to pronounce it with a hard g as with a soft g,” McCulloch concludes. “And you’ll never find an overwhelming-enough piece of counter-evidence to get you to change your mind.”
Passionate portals dedicated to the word’s pronunciation, meanwhile, do their damnedest to insist they have the right answer. One of the oldest pages dedicated to the matter, which opens with a GeoCities-caliber GIF of its own, mostly cites Wilhite. The emergence of howtoreallypronouncegif.com in 2013, which advocates for a hard G, was met with a site that has a similar design, but a far less catchy URL, to defend the soft G. Each of these pages goes very, very deeply into the debate, and I’m skipping most of the data points (including the debate on how the sounds within an acronym’s words don’t necessarily translate to the acronym itself, lest you pronounce SCUBA as “scuh-ba”).
“Language is a collective project”
An arguably bigger debate point is acceptance within pop culture, which is much harder to pin down. The debate lacks major touchstones in Western media, while celebrity acceptance isn’t conclusive, either. The hard-G side has President Barack Obama and the late Prince. The soft-G side has Alex Trebek:
But all of those examples came over a decade after GIFs became popular and even longer after the format’s invention in the late ’80s. As lexicographer and author Jane Solomon says in an interview with Ars, “Coiners of terms and brands can try to dictate how people pronounce words, but it’s ultimately not in their control. Language is not owned by any one person or entity; it’s a collective project. Language development is influenced by the way people actually speak, write, and communicate.”
What’s more, the zeitgeist that created and popularized GIFs came mostly in unspoken fashion—with its biggest proponents spreading their favorites well before the smartphone era, via LiveJournal pages, fan forums, instant messaging clients, and the like. All of these required a level of Internet and computer fluency that didn’t neatly translate to mass-market media like TV series or films. That’s where we might have otherwise seen a popular pop-culture icon settle the GIF pronunciation debate in its infancy. Instead, GIFs took their sweet time to dominate commonplace social media platforms and messaging apps, which now live in most users’ pockets around the world.
And if neither Obama nor Trebek can swing the momentum at this point, we’re not sure who can. Or, as Solomon points out, “I highly doubt that people who pronounce GIF with a soft G are going to suddenly switch to a hard G because of a limited-edition design of a peanut butter jar.”