Fire up a Google for a moment. Type in the words “How do you pronounce…” and then look at the autofill results. If you get the results I did, the first hit will be “gyro.’ Or is that “gyro” or “gyro”? The second hit will be “GIF.”
An acronym is a word that’s made out of the initials of a phrase. FBI is not an acronym, but RAM is. The only difference between the two is how easily they can be said as a word rather than the corresponding letters.
We have rules on how words are pronounced. The word “cat” is pronounced “kat,” even tough the letter “c” can also make the same sound as “s.” There is no controversy over this, because the word has been around long enough that we all learned it when we were young. Names are a bit more difficult. The name “Björk” is pronounced “Byork” by most folks in the US, but she pronounces it “Byerk.” It’s her name, so she should choose how it’s pronounced. Seems fair.
But GIF is a problem. It stands for Graphics Interchange Format. Many argue that since the word “graphics” has a hard ‘g,’ the word should be pronounced “GIF.” But the man who created the file format, Steve Wilhite, claims it’s pronounced “JIF.”
When Wilhite announced this in 2013, the media informed the world that the debate was over. Yay! It will be “JIF” forever!
Not so fast. Others claim that just because you’ve created an acronym, you don’t get to change how the language works. It shall always be “GIF.”
So who’s right?
There’s an odd element to this. Both sides of the argument are thoroughly convinced that they’re right. People who refuse to comply, are WRONG, and it must be publicly announced. And yet a solution is obvious.
The Oxford dictionary lists both ways of saying it as valid. Just as they do with many other words, like ab-DUH-men & ab-DO-men and aunt & aunt (ant). We seem more accepting of these then we are with GIF, which some have taken to pronounce as HIFF just to annoy people.
Some words listed with two pronunciations like pecan (PEE-cahn vs. pih-CAHN) also cause controversy. “Only people from THERE say it that way.”
And that points to the problem.
As social primates, we expect people in our group to comply to our expectations of how words are pronounced. Any variation is seen as “other,” and therefor antisocial. And if we’re called out, we immediately become defensive in order to protect our place in the social strata. And we’ll come up with arguments about why we’re obviously right. For pecan, the arguments boil down to “because that’s how it’s pronounced” or “only ignorant people say it the other way.” For computer terms which were created recently, there needs to be justification.
There was another computer term for a connection between devices. It was called Shugart Associates Computer Interface, or SCSI. The creator, Larry Boucher (or is that boo-shay?), intended for it to be pronounced “sexy.” But nearly everyone saw SCSI and pronounced it “scuzzy.” Even today, if you ask for a “sexy” cable, you’ll be asked what kind, but most older IT folks will know what a “scuzzy” cable is right away. There was virtually no controversy, because “scuzzy” became popular so quickly that most people didn’t even know about the “sexy” declaration. Thus, there was no threat to one’s social status for pronouncing it “wrong.”
It’s unusual to have to make a decision on how to pronounce a word, but having moved to different areas of the country, I find myself conforming to the people around me unconsciously. I used to say GIF, and now I say GIF because when I was working with that format, that’s what the people around me said. I used to say “aunt,” and now I say “ant” often as I’ve lived in parts of the country where that’s the preferred way. Upon moving to the midwest, I learned that people found my pronunciation of the word “tour” (toor) odd, whereas in my native New England the midwestern “too-er” seems incorrect.
We may be social primates, but we are also humans. As such, we can reason and tolerate differences in language. At least we should be able to. So maybe we should work on that rather than trying to so hard to defend our one true set of sounds.
UPDATE: SCSI is derived from SASI, which is Shugart Associates Computer Interface. SCSI actually stands for Small Computer Systems Interface. We apologize for the error.