‘Jeopardy’ has conclusively settled the GIF pronunciation war

December 4, 2013
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The GIF pronunciation debate — perhaps the most trivial Internet controversy of these trivial Internet times — has refused to die entirely, even at the prodding of its creator (it’s “jif,” like the peanut butter, he insisted last spring), the OED (you can say it both ways, per the official entry) and a thousand frustrated tweets, think pieces and Web sites devoted solely to the cause.

Now game-show host Alex Trebek, the final authority on all things trivial, has waded into these contentious waters: The issue surfaced during Tuesday night’s round of “Final Jeopardy.”

“We are dealing with the Internet,” Trebek intoned gravely.

The prompt: “The inventor of this image format said the OED wrongly has 2 pronunciations of it — the right one is with a soft ‘G.’”

The answer: “What is a GIF?” (A potentially interesting question, if you think about it.)

All three contestants got it right, and the winner — seen smiling serenely, and hilariously, as he puts his pen down at 0:45 — wagered $15,201 to take the lead. That makes this the only time that the GIF pronunciation war has been of any actual worth to anybody.

In terms of less tangible value, linguists say the strong feelings people have over GIFs and “JIFs” probably tie into individual identity — even self-worth. Penn State linguist Elizabeth Pyatt told the New York Times in May, when GIF creator Steve Wilhite made his pronunciation pronouncement, that saying words correctly marks the speaker’s status — so  people actually have a pretty vested interest in having their GIF pronunciation come out on top. For the record, Washington Post readers overwhelmingly voted for “GIF,” hard G, in an unscientific poll in May, and Trebek himself has historically resorted to the neutral, but incorrect, “G-I-F.”

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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