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Oxford Dictionaries USA Word of the Year 2012: ‘to GIF’

Today, Oxford Dictionaries announced the Oxford Dictionaries USA Word of the Year for 2012. Katherine Martin was one of the lexicographers on the judging panel and here are her reflections on the shortlist.

GIF    verb to create a GIF file of (an image or video sequence, especially relating to an event): he GIFed the highlights of the debate

The GIF, a compressed file format for images that can be used to create simple, looping animations, turned 25 this year, but like so many other relics of the 80s, it has never been trendier. GIF celebrated a lexical milestone in 2012, gaining traction as a verb, not just a noun. The GIF has evolved from a medium for pop-cultural memes into a tool with serious applications including research and journalism, and its lexical identity is transforming to keep pace.

Highlights of the year in GIFing


January 2012: The New York Public Library launches the Stereogranimator, a tool enabling users to make GIFs of vintage stereographs in the library’s collection to create an illusion of the 3D experience of viewing through a stereoscope.

7 February 2012: First post on the GIFtastic tumblr whatshouldwecallme.

15 June 2012: 25th anniversary of the GIF.

July 2012: 20th anniversary of first GIF (and first photograph) ever posted to the World Wide Web.

July 2012: GIFs contribute to the viral ubiquity of Gangnam Style.

August 2012: The GIF vaults to prominence as a tool in covering Olympic events, marshaled into use both for serious analysis and humorous effect. Blogging for the New York Times, Jenna Wortham called GIFs “the perfect medium for the Olympics.”

October 2012: Tumblr and the Guardian team up to live-GIF the presidential debates.

Origin, pronunciation, and spelling


GIF is an acronym from graphic interchange format, coined as a noun in 1987. The recent development of verbal GIF is an example of a linguistic process called conversion, or zero-formation. Verbs are often created from nouns in this way in English, ranging from venerable words such as to blanket and to fork to other recent technology neologisms like to Google and to Photoshop.

GIF may be pronounced with either a soft g (as in giant) or a hard g (as in graphic). The programmers who developed the format preferred a pronunciation with a soft g (in homage to the commercial tagline of the peanut butter brand Jif, they supposedly quipped “choosy developers choose GIF”). However, the pronunciation with a hard g is now very widespread and readily understood. Whichever pronunciation you use, it should of course be the same for both the noun and the verb.

GIF is usually spelled in all capitals in its uninflected form, but the addition of verbal endings presents problems. The examples of verbal GIF collected by Oxford’s lexicographers represent a dizzying variety of forms, including such infelicities as GIFfing and .giffed (with a period prefixed as in the file extension .gif). The most common form features GIF in capitals but the inflected endings in lowercase (GIFed, GIFing), so that is the spelling we have chosen to use here. However, there is also very strong evidence for an all-lowercase spelling with the f duplicated (giffed, giffing), perhaps by analogy with the verb riff.  With such a new word, it isn’t surprising that a single spelling hasn’t yet become established; Oxford’s lexicography team will be watching to see which version ultimately wins out.

Other words on our 2012 shortlist


GIF had strong competition this year from some other words that our team felt captured the zeitgeist of 2012:

Eurogeddon: the potential financial collapse of the European Union countries that have adopted the euro, envisaged as having catastrophic implications for the region’s economic stability [from euro + (Arma)geddon]

Higgs boson: a subatomic particle whose existence is predicted by the theory that unified the weak and electromagnetic interactions

MOOC: massive open online course; a university course offered free of charge via the Internet

nomophobia: anxiety caused by being without one’s mobile phone [from no + mo(bile) + phobia]

Super PAC: a type of independent political action committee which may raise unlimited sums of money from corporations, unions, and individuals but is not permitted to contribute to or coordinate directly with parties or candidates

superstorm: an unusually large and destructive storm

YOLO: you only live once; typically used as rationale or endorsement for impulsive or irresponsible behavior

About the Oxford Dictionaries USA Word of the Year


The Word of the Year is chosen annually as a word that has attracted interest and that embodies in some way the ethos of the year. It need not have been coined within the past twelve months and it does not have to be a word that will endure for a significant length of time: it is very difficult to accurately predict which new words will have staying power. And while the Word of the Year has great resonance for 2012, that doesn’t mean that it will automatically go into any of our English Dictionaries.

Katherine Connor Martin is a lexicographer in OUP’s New York office. She is a regular contributor to the OxfordWords blog, where this article also appeared.

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Recent Comments

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  40. Hack it! - theadventuro.us

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  42. [...] With recent coverage in Wired Magazine and NYPL’s amazing Stereogranmator, as well as social media wading into the animated waters with SnapChat, Vine and GifBoom, the age of the GIF is here. Hell, it’s even the Oxford English Dictionary’s 2012 Word of the Year! [...]

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