How Do Linguists Pronounce GIF?

iStock
iStock

Oscar Tay:

Oh dear, this is going to be the most controversial thing I’ve ever written. I wish we could just accept our tomopotatine differences and be understanding of other ways of doing things and learn to live in harmony but sadly, it’s pronounced with a soft “g” you mindless misacronymers.

Let’s hear it from the other side first—that is, the people who like Sven Williams in his answer to this question believe it should start with the hard “g” of misguided. The most common argument in favor of the hard-g-GIF is that GIF is an abbreviation for “graphics interchange format,” and should therefore be pronounced with the hard “g” of graphics.

The problem with this is that this isn’t how acronyms work: They’re pronounced according to typical word-pronunciation rules, which I went over recently here. The most famous counterexample is JPEG, short for “Joint Photographic Experts Group”; by the logic of the hard-g-graphics argument, you should pronounce “JPEG” as jay-pheg instead of the mainstream jay-peg because of the “ph” at the beginning of photographic.

Howtoreallypronouncegif.com, in favor of the hard-gif, adds that most single-syllable English words spelled with a “g” use it to make the hard g sound:

Gab. Gad. Gag. Gal. Gam. Gap. Gas. Gay. Get. Gig. Gill. Gimp. Gird. Girl. Git!
Give. Go. Goal. Gob. God. Gone. Gore. Got. Guide. Guild. Guilt. Gull.
Gulp. Gum. Gun. Gust. Gut. Guy. The word “gift” is the closest word to
GIF, and it has a hard G. To pronounce GIF, just say gift without the "t."

The website then unconvincingly disregards gin, gem, gym, geo, and gel, saying that gin comes from Dutch, which makes it ineligible for some reason, that gem comes from Latin gemma, which also mysteriously renders it negligible, and that the latter three don’t count because they’re short for longer words.

These arguments shall not stand for those who know it is rightly pronounced with the soft “g” of legitimate. The soft-gif camp is well-known for having the original creator of the GOF, Steve Wilhite, on our side. In his 2013 acceptance speech at the Webby awards, he offered these five words of wisdom:

I’ll let that stand for itself. Not convinced?

In CompuServe’s FAQs, they clearly state that “The GIF (Graphics Interchange Format), pronounced "JIF," was designed by CompuServe and the official specification released in June of 1987.”

Besides this staggering monument of truth on the screen before ye, there are plenty of solid arguments for the softer pronunciation. Howtoreallypronouncegif.com argues that the soft-gif is unintuitive, and everyone says hard-gif on their first acquaintance with the acronym, so “jif” is wrong.

Not so, we say; there are plenty of immediately difficult words that we have to learn to say properly as we get older: yacht, chthonic, colonel, epitome, syncope, Worcestershire, and so on. There is no good reason that gif cannot be one of these—and, even there, it is ever as understandable as gin, which the scheming Howtoreallypronouncegif.com tosses aside without reason.

We’ve every prescriptive reason to believe that soft-gif—the jif, the beacon of truth in the wars of the internet—is the one true pronunciation. It is with this that I close my case; do with it what you will.

Now, objectively, neither is especially correct. Both hard- and soft-gifs are in common use. Linguists are, as Daniel Ross goes over in more detail here, supposed to describe how language is used, not how it should be used, so the question as it stands won’t help you any more than the discussion at How do you pronounce "GIF"?.

This answer is largely tongue-in-cheek, as you might have guessed. I do use the soft-gif, but there’s no real problem with the other pronunciation. There are arguments for and against each, and I’ve lain out some above, but ultimately it comes down to what you and your friends want to say. According to The New York Times:

"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."

However, I still stick to my arguments in favour of soft-gif. To answer your question, both are objectively fine ways of saying GIF, but if you pronounce it with a hard “g” I do think you’re very wrong indeed.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

Why Are We So Scared of Clowns?

Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

With the recent box office-smashing success of Stephen King's It, it’s safe to say that coulrophobia (fear of clowns) isn’t a fringe phenomenon. The colorful circus performers are right up there with vampires and werewolves on the list of iconic horror villains. But unlike other movie monsters, clowns were originally meant to make kids laugh, not hide under their beds in terror. So what is it about clowns that taps into our deepest fears?

According to Yale doctoral candidate Danielle Bainbridge, the unsettling clown stereotype goes back centuries. In the inaugural episode of the PBS digital series Origin of Everything, Bainbridge explained the long history of this pervasive part of our culture.

Before clowns wore floppy shoes and threw pies at each other’s faces, early versions of the performers could be found in royal courts. The court jester wasn’t evil, but he was the only person in the kingdom who could poke fun at the monarch without fear of (literally) losing his head. The fact that fools didn’t fall within the normal social hierarchy may have contributed to the future role clowns would play as untrustworthy outsiders.

From the medieval era, clowns evolved into the harlequins of 16th-century Italian theater. Again, these weren’t bloodthirsty monsters, but they weren’t exactly kid-friendly either. The characters were often mischievous and morally bankrupt, and their strange costumes and masks only added to the creepy vibes they gave off.

Fast-forward to the 19th century, when the white-faced circus clowns we know today started gaining popularity. Unlike the jesters and harlequins that came before them, these clowns performed primarily for children and maintained a wholesome image. But as pop culture in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s showed us, that old perception we had of clowns as nefarious troublemakers never really went away. Steven King’s It, the cult classic Killer Clowns From Outer Space (1988), and that scene from Poltergeist (1982) all combined these original fears with the more modern association of clowns with children. That formula gave us one of the most frightening figures in horror media today.

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Why Do We Call a Leg Cramp a Charley Horse?

iStock.com/Jan-Otto
iStock.com/Jan-Otto

If you’re unlucky enough to have experienced a charley horse—a painful muscle spasm or cramp in your leg—then you may have found yourself wondering what this nonsensical phrase even means. Who is this Charley character? Where did he come from? And what does he know about my pain?

Like the words flaky and jazz, this term likely entered the language from the baseball field. While the idiom’s etymology isn’t 100 percent certain, archived newspaper articles suggest it was coined by a baseball player in the 1880s. We just don’t know which player said it first, or why.

According to a January 1887 article in the Democrat and Chronicle, the phrase was well-known to baseball players at the time—but to the average person, charley horses were as enigmatic as “an Egyptian hieroglyphic.” That year, charley horses were mentioned in a slew of newspapers across America, and some attempted to tackle the phrase’s murky origin. “Nearly every sporting journal gives a different version as to how the term charley horse originated in baseball circles,” the Oakland Daily Evening Tribune reported at the time.

The likeliest tale, according to the paper, centered around John Wesley "Jack" Glasscock, a shortstop who at the time was playing for Indianapolis. At some point a few years earlier, the player had strained a tendon in his thigh during a game and afterwards went home to his farm, where his father looked after a lame old horse called a "Charley horse." When the senior Glasscock saw his son limping along, he reportedly exclaimed, “Why, John, my boy, what is the matter; you go just like the old Charley horse?” John supposedly shared the funny turn of phrase with his teammates, and from there it spread. Similar accounts were reported in other newspapers, but they were attributed to various other players.

Other reports say the phrase has nothing to do with a live animal, but rather the fact that an injured player, while running, resembles a rocking horse or a child riding astride a wooden hobby horse.

The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary by Paul Dickson details a few other theories. In two versions of the same basic tale, Orioles or Chicago Cubs players went to the races and bet on a horse named Charlie who "pulled up lame in the final stretch." The next day, a player pulled a tendon in his leg and was said to resemble “our old Charlie horse.”

Alternatively, its origin may relate to an old workhorse that was tasked with pulling a roller across the infield. “Often in the 1800s, old workhorses kept on the grounds of ballparks were called Charley. The movements of the injured, stiff-legged ballplayers were likened to the labored plodding of these old horses, and the injury itself eventually became known as a ‘charley’ or ‘charley horse,'" Tim Considine wrote in 1982's The Language of Sport.

It also appears that charley horse originally implied a much more serious injury—or perhaps there was a bit of hysteria surrounding a condition that seemed new and scary in the late 19th century. The Democrat and Chronicle described a charley horse as a “giving way of one of the small tendons of the leg” and said an injured baseball player might need an entire season to recover. Another article from 1887 said ballplayer George Van Haltren’s relatives were worried he would get a charley horse, “although they do not know what that is.” He was said to have been “very fortunate” because he had “not yet encountered the terrible charley horse.”

For comparison, Healthline.com now says charley horses “are generally treatable at home” by stretching, massaging, or icing the afflicted area, although the muscle pain can linger for up to a day in some cases. So there you have it. We may never know the exact etymology of the charley horse, but the next time you get a sharp pain in your leg, you can thank an old-timey ballplayer for making your struggle sound so silly.

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