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It's a hard ‘Gif’ life, Mr Wilhite

Pronunciation changes over time. It's too late to take us back to "jif"

It’s not all that often the bespectacled curators of the Oxford English Dictionary find themselves fighting side by side with users of Twitter, the greatest threat to language in modern life, according to some. But this morning precisely that alliance came to pass. Causus belli? A computer technician called Steve Wilhite, creator of the Gif, and his attempt to correct pretty much everyone on their pronunciation.

It’s “jif”, he says. Not “Gif”. After nearly 20 years of silence (the GIF was spawned in 1987) he let the world know its mistake through an interview with the New York Times, given ahead of his acceptance of a lifetime achievement award at last night’s Webbys: “The Oxford English Dictionary accepts both pronunciations”, he said. “They are wrong. It is a soft ‘G,’ pronounced ‘jif.’ End of story.”

In response Twitter made, and is still making, a wonderful show of its pantomime spirit with a cry of “Oh no it isn’t!” Meanwhile the OED itself, perhaps sequestered in emergency council, has yet to respond to what amounts to a fairly stern challenge to their authority.

They should get their act together, for two reasons. 1) It’s not every day you get a chance to bring linguistics to the masses 2) We - the people who say “Gif” - need an authoritative voice to stand up for the principle that language use changes, and, even if you happen to be the forefather of such life-enhancing clips as this (and this), you can’t intervene all of a sudden to set the pronunciation record straight. (If you could, we might be stuck with 16th century rhymes on “play/sea”, “tongue/wrong”).

There are many reasons to defer to Mr Wilhite. He is something akin to internet royalty; the Gif is his baby. But we adopted it and raised it with a hard "G". Even if the OED were to say otherwise, it's too late to go back now.