By AMY O’LEARY
It has been called “The Great Schism of the 21st Century” and “The Most Absurd Religious War in Geek History.”
The 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.
He made the statement first in an interview with The New York Times,then in an acceptance speech at the annual Webby Awards on Tuesday, where he received a lifetime achievement award.
Mr. Wilhite incited a debate that generated 17,000 posts on Twitter, 50 news articles and plenty of tongue-in-cheek outrage.
“You 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.
“Nannernannernanner,” wrote one person on Twitter.
“Pffffffffffffff,” posted another.
So 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.”
Mr. Wilhite 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. Mr. Wilhite thought he could help.
“I saw the format I wanted in my head and then I started programming,” he said in an e-mail. Mr. Wilhite primarily uses e-mail 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.
Tuesday night, Mr. 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.
Mr. 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.” Mr. Wilhite was attacked as a “soft-g zealot,” and dissenters said his decree made as much sense as calling graphics “jraphics.”
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 pronunciation.
The “JIF” camp, meanwhile, was giddy with feelings of righteousness.
The uproar was a boon for a certain peanut butter brand. The J. M. Smucker Company, 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 Wilhite today?”
“We’re nuts about him today,” the bread spread responded in a gentle attempt to turn the conversation toward nut butters. They swiftly produced an animated GIF to lend visual support to their cause.
Among such vivid enthusiasm, there were of course those who found the debate tedious, a rehashing of a decades-old debate. In the same vein, a certain category of computer user found the occasion as a chance to tout their Internet bona fides.
The editor of the Oxford English Dictionary was noncommittal, writing on a tech blog that the dictionary accepts both pronunciations.
Ms. Pyatt of Penn State believes that the debate is not likely to be settled anytime soon.
“Language 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.”