The word ‘GIF’ (or Graphics Interchange Format) and the name ‘Steve Wilhite’ may mean nothing to most people.  You have better things to be doing than worrying about an Internet acronym and the man who invented it twenty three years ago.   Therefore you’re not going to be stunned when I tell you that Steve has revealed the word is not pronounced “GIF”. It’s ‘JIF’.  But “jifgate” is leaving a bitter lemon taste in the mouths of those who are now conscious they’ve been mispronouncing something for years.

Pronunciation correction, like grammar correction, is a sure way to lose friends and alienate people so it’s best to keep it to yourself. Glance around an Italian restaurant and you will spot at least one person biting their lip. Their facial expression silently screams “It’s pronounced broosKETTA” when someone orders the popular antipasto.  No matter how much they want to, they won’t say: “I think you are probably looking for an ESPRESSO. An EXPRESSO is a bus that makes relatively few stops. You can’t order that here. I would suggest you leave and try and find one on the street before I ACCIDENTALLY SPILL THIS ESPRESSO ON YOUR HEAD.”

That’s other people of course – I wouldn’t dream of getting so angry about so trifling a matter. Life’s too short for that kind of rage. In any case we are now safely in May, far away from the most mispronounced months of the year: Jangry and Febbry.

In any case it’s a mine-field. Pronunciation is personal, it depends on accents and intonation and sometimes the wrong pronunciation just ‘feels right’.  Sudocrem might be Sudo-kremm but Sudo-creeme is far more soothing – and creamier.

Mispronunciation can be enriching. In Ireland, with our huge success in producing boy-bands – we also do very successful cover versions of words. Barack Obama is from Chicago but a fella who left the home-plac e years ago without a bob or a string to hold up his trousers is in now making big money ‘Chicargo’. We strengthen ties to our Cousins by calling them cousints. Sometimes the pronunciation creates a new meaning. If you eat a sangwidge, you are indicating a bit of ham, compressed between two slices of white pan and wrapped in tin foil. A sandwich is one of those overpriced yokes you get in Dublin.

And then sometimes we just add in different words. I was in a meeting once where someone explained that they had a number of problems on the project  – with “computer software issues and others of that elk” . For the rest of the rather boring meeting, I was lost in a pleasant reveries, hypothesising about the kind of problems that can be caused on IT projects by large antlered deer and their ilk.

A friend told me her very elderly mother once asked a surprised baker for fellatio bread instead of focaccia.

People laugh at me when I say adver-TIZ-mint.

It’s the way we tell them.


This article was first published in the Irish Examiner on May 27th, 2013

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