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GIF (v.) bests YOLO as Oxford dictionaries' U.S. word of the year

November 13, 2012|By Deborah Netburn
  • A still from Nyan Cat, perhaps the most famous GIF on the Internet.
A still from Nyan Cat, perhaps the most famous GIF on the Internet. (YouTube )

"Higgs Boson" was a contender. So were "superstorm," "Super PAC" and "YOLO" (an acronym that stands for You Only Live Once).  But Katherine Martin, head of the U.S. dictionaries program at Oxford University Press USA, said that when it came time for her team of lexicographers to pick the word of the year, the choice was obvious. It had to be GIF, the verb. 

"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."

"There were lots of contenders related to words that had been in the news like 'self-deportation' and 'pink slime,'" Martin said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, "but GIF transcended any particular event and spoke to an overall trend of how we consume media."

For the last 25 years, people have been using the word GIF as a noun to describe a type of computer file that can cycle through a series of images. The word is actually an acronym for "graphic interchange format."

Martin said she experienced a personal turning point with the usage of GIF as a verb when Tumblr teamed with the Guardian website to "live GIF" the presidential debate. That sparked a series of stories in the media about live GIFing. She said she has still not found examples of the verb "GIF" in print media, but it is prevalent in the online media.

If the verb-ing of the word "GIF" makes you feel prickly -- as if it represents the demise of the English language -- keep in mind we've seen language morph like this before. People started using "Google" as a verb -- as in "Can you Google it?" in the early 2000s. And if I told you I had "Photoshopped" a picture you'd know that I had tweaked it using Adobe's Photoshop program.

Martin points out that while the noun GIF has existed for 25 years, it isn't until now that enough people have needed a word to describe the making of a GIF.

"The democratization of technology made it possible for anyone to make a GIF, and the rise of Tumblr gave them a forum to share their GIF," she said. "Then suddenly all these people had a reason to express an idea that never needed expressing before."

And for the record: Although Steve Wilhite, inventor of the GIF prefers the soft G pronunciation of the word (like Jiff, the peanut butter) the Oxford Dictionaries team has deemed both soft G and hard G pronunciations to be acceptable. 

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