Gender pronouns and the pronunciation of the word “GIF”

In 1987, a new file format was released by CompuServe, the Graphics Interchange Format, or GIF for short. While the format has been surpassed by better compression algorithms with no loss in quality (for example, PNG), GIF files made a comeback because they support animation. Animated GIFs are the bread and butter of modern informal communication (in Twitter and instant messaging for example), and even Microsoft Outlook supports them now.

Which is all very well except that there is a sharp, stark divide in how people pronounce the word “GIF”. There is an argument for a hard G sound, because Graphics starts with a hard G. However, the correct pronunciation according to the creators of this file format, state point blank that they were inspired by Jif peanut butter, that it is pronounced with a soft G, and they even have a tagline “choosy developers choose GIF”, where it has a soft G.

Case closed. You can all go home now.

Except this argument keeps coming up time and time again, and loudly. Boy, howdy. I lost four Twitter followers today because of this discussion. I was even told I went too far when I stated that the blatant disregard of the creators’ pronunciation is akin to ignoring gender pronouns.

Yes, I went there.

I recently started a series of posts on my technical blog about gatekeeping in the information technology sector, specifically discussing gatekeeping as it relates to gender, language, diversity and inclusivity. (I’m still working on the last piece, which will include accessibility, and how I personally need to do better in this regard.) It comes down to the fact that the IT industry is dominated by straight white cis-gendered men (in other words, men who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth). For women, and/or an underrepresented minority (including, but not limited to queer people, people of colour, and disabled people) it is much harder to get into the industry, and then stay there and work their way up the corporate ladder, on account of rampant sexism, misogyny, racism, homophobia, and transphobia.

So how do I have the nerve to take what many people consider to be a frivolous argument (i.e. not having any serious value or purpose, according to my dictionary) about the name of a file format, and align it with a clearly more important discussion around gender identity and pronouns? One is vastly more important than the other. After all, people aren’t dying because GIF is pronounced with a hard G.

Keeping in mind that Twitter is not the most nuanced place for philosophical debate (and that “nuance” is my word for 2019), I suggested that respecting the file format name — as bestowed on it by its creators — is no different than the name a parent bestows upon their child. Thus, people who insist (loudly, strongly, certainly with less rationale than is deserving of frivolity) that GIF is pronounced with a hard G, have no right to be upset if their own names are mispronounced.

I then went on to suggest that this dismissal of a clear pronunciation guide from the creators as documented over 30 years ago along with a handy tagline, is the same as dismissing someone’s pronouns. I put it in positive terms though: pronouncing GIF the way the inventor says it should be (soft G) is the same as respecting people’s pronouns.

A lot of smart people responded, including the “too far” comment:

This started out as a bit of fun but, as always with you it get taken way too far. I have the utmost respect for you and your choices but frankly to equate this to that, esp in light of the jocular manner in which it began, imho, cheapens the seriousness of the pronoun issue.

Firstly, I’ve said in the past that serious topics of conversation can — and sometimes should — be discussed in a humorous way. Applying humour does not nullify or lessen credibility or seriousness. I’ve found many times that humour conveys a concept better than a dry delivery of facts, so I reject the disingenuous notion that humour cheapens the discussion. This is a lazy defence.

Secondly, for an issue that is seen to be frivolous, people have extremely strong opinions about how to pronounce a three-letter acronym with a clear pronunciation guide that is three decades old. Clearly, it is not frivolous. Clearly, it is a lot more serious than people make it out to be, and therein lies my analogy with personal pronouns. A lot of people think that Sam Smith (or me) coming out as non-binary, asking folks to use gender-neutral pronouns, is frivolous, resulting in hate speech, jokes about attack helicopters, and dismissing the seriousness of our personal identity.

Yes, using classic techniques I learned in debate class including hyperbole (exaggerated statements not meant to be taken literally), I equated a serious issue with a frivolous one, thereby pointing out the absurdity of people who feel so strongly about something which has no effect on their lives, but matters deeply to a small group of people, that they are so unwilling to hear a counter argument, despite all evidence of the contrary.

If Twitter had capacity for 875 words per tweet, I wouldn’t have to type it here.

1 thought on “Gender pronouns and the pronunciation of the word “GIF”

  1. Thanks for clearing that up! I have been pronouncing it with a hard g since I first saw a gif on Compuserve. Now that I know better, I’ll use their desired pronunciation.

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