It is an issue so bitterly divisive that it threatens the very structural integrity of the internet itself: Is “GIF” pronounced with a hard g (as in “girl”) or a soft g (as in “giant”)? Some people insist that GIF is a homophone for a well-known brand of peanut butter. Others insist that it really, really isn’t, and may God strike dead all those who disagree. Vicious wars of words have emerged over this matter in comment sections across the internet, and it won’t be long before the GIF rage translates into real-world violence. Must blood be shed over silent, looping videos in which cats behave like people and that Scanners guy’s head explodes over and over again? Ever the source of reason and civility, PBS has weighed in on the matter with an episode of its Idea Channel webseries called “Do You Pronounce It GIF Or GIF?” Amiable, even-tempered host Mike Rugnetta does not side with the soft-g people or the hard-g people. Both are simultaneously correct and incorrect, he says. He even provides a third, joking pronunciation: “zhaif.” (It rhymes with “wife” and begins with the same sound as “Zsa Zsa” in Zsa Zsa Gabor.) Silly as it is, “zhaif” can be justified linguistically. That’s Rugnetta’s whole point: There is ample evidence to support either of the two major pronunciations of “GIF.” So everyone’s a little wrong, and everyone’s a little right.
The hard-g people can find strength in numbers. According to a survey cited in this video, 70 percent of people worldwide say it that way. But, then again, the very creator of the format, Steve Wilhite, has stated on the record that “GIF” is pronounced with a soft g. That’s pretty persuasive evidence, too. But is creator intent all that matters in language? Rugnetta points out that William Shakespeare added words to the language, and not all of his pronunciations are honored today. The message of the video is that, ultimately, what’s important is whether the speaker and the listener both understand what is being said. As long as the meaning of the word is conveyed successfully, its pronunciation is of secondary concern. Or, better yet, no concern at all. So relax, internet. Breathe easy knowing that none of this actually matters.