Stephen Wilhite died last week from COVID at the age of 74. He is best known for inventing the GIF, which was released in June 1987 by early internet titan, CompuServe, at a time when households across America were just starting to purchase home computers.
GIFs have occupied the walls of art galleries and the walls of Facebook; they’ve been a favorite among boomers on iMessage and late 90s digital artists. From glittering MySpace graphics to a creepy dancing baby to the entire Shrek movie, GIFs can be just about anything you want them to be.
As Wilhite was creating the GIF in his basement, he couldn’t have known that the format would go on to alter the way we behave online, introducing us to a cast of characters and a new world of digital body language.
Today, GIF site Giphy is displaying a banner to honor Wilhite’s work. His online obituary page says “he was an avid camper and loved travelling and camping. Even with all his accomplishments, he remained a very humble, kind, and good man.” The post has messages from former colleagues at CompuServe and a representative of the Webby Awards.
It’s pronounced Gif, not Gif— Graphics Interchange Format is a mouthful, but the GIF abbreviation is the center of a bitter, longstanding pronunciation debate.
In 2013, Wilhite told The New York Times, “The Oxford English Dictionary accepts both pronunciations. They are wrong. It is a soft ‘G,’ pronounced ‘jif.’ End of story.” In 2013, when he received a Webby Lifetime Achievement Award and doubled down on the peanut butter pronunciation. According to the self-proclaimed ‘GIF pronunciation page’, CompuServe employees would joke that "choosy developers choose GIF." So be sure to pronounce it with a soft “G” the way Wilhite intended.