The Pronunciation Debate: GIF Me A Break

In the high-tech and retail worlds, there is a small group of marketers who seem to believe that they control branding and that even after decades of use, pronunciations and nicknames can be changed by marketing dictate. These people are what is known in retail IT circles as "Wrong. Dead Wrong. Absolutely and forever wrong and they were never even the teensiest bit right." (IT knows not nuance.)

What brings this up is the recent debate—best articulated by our friends at The New York Times—about whether the graphical standard GIF should be pronounced as a homonym with Jif, the peanut butter. (Never quite understood the campaign "Choosy Mothers Choose Jif." Did that mean that less uptight, less anal-retentive mothers chose Skippy? But I digress.) For decades—since 1987—it's been pronounced with a hard G, as in the word graphic.

Seems that Steve Wilhite, the inventor of the popular graphic approach back when he worked at CompuServe, now has opted for the peanut-butter pronunciation. It also appears that the actual owners of Jif the spread—J. M. Smucker Co.—have endorsed this new pronunciation, which should have shamed anyone supporting Wilhite's new pronunciation into silence.

Here's the problem: After a large community has accepted a pronunciation or a nickname, there's no going back. Remember Digital Equipment? A huge mini-computer maker in its day, the company was known as DEC (pronounced "deck"). Shortly before the company vanished forever, it made an official campaign to change its nickname from DEC to Digital. Note: They didn't want to change the company's name, but just its nickname.

That effort was about as successful as the more recent move by Radio Shack to get people to call it The Shack. Ever heard anyone do that? Me, neither, and the chain has mercifully given up.

The best part of the Times piece is when it quoted a Penn State University linguist named Elizabeth Pyatt. Her 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."

Not so sure about that second part—what "logical basis" could there possibly be for pronouncing a newly created term with a hard or a soft G?—but the first part is spot on. People just know how GIF is pronounced, and rather than risk being mocked as uninformed, the safest route is to stick with what is common.

Hear that marketers? When a linguist knows your business better than you, time to hang up the tools of your trade. For marketers, I am guessing that's mostly high boots and lots of shovels.