Fantasy originalism

A SMBC “Gif” from sometime in August 2017:

Yes, a stupid discussion, on several fronts.

First of all, GIF is an initialism from graphic interchange format — a type of abbreviation, rather than a word inherited from predecessor words. 

Even if it were an inherited word, its earlier pronunciations would not be models for how it should be pronounced now. In particular, there’s no such thing as the true original pronunciation (or meaning, for that matter). The Proto-Germanic word in the cartoon (however charming) is utter fantasy, but even if there were such a thing, it would be entirely irrelevant to the pronunciation (or meaning) of a word in the modern language.

But there is a question about the pronunciation of the initialistic abbreviation. The word-initial letter G before the letter I has two primary competing pronunciations: with the velar stop of gift, gig, gimlet, or gibbon; and with the postalveolar affricate of gin, giant, ginger, and gibber. Both fit the system of letter-sound correspondences in English orthography; there’s no compelling reason to favor one over the other, and indeed standard dictionaries generally just list them as alternatives. Only someone who stubbornly insists on the principle of One Right Way would give the matter any further thought, and if you insist on ORW you deserve pity, not a audience.


4 Responses to “Fantasy originalism”

  1. bebopple Says:

    interesting (to me) that when i grew up in scotland in the 1960’s, the word gimlet was commonly pronounced with a soft g. however, when i looked for this online, i couldn’t find a single instance… and now i feel foolish for having believed this for such a long time. fortunately your statement that standard dictionaries would list gimlet and jimlet as alternatives makes me feel better, even though it’s not really true…

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Well no, standard dictionaries wouldn’t list gimlet and jimlet as alternatives … just “giff” and “jiff” as alternative pronunciations for GIF.

  2. Robert Coren Says:

    I still wonder what Lewis Carroll intended when he wrote “did gyre and gimble in the wabe”. As he has Humpty Dumpty explain, the two g-words are derived from gyroscope and gimlet respectively, clearly suggesting two different pronunciations for the initial consonant, which just doesn’t seem euphonious to me.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      I’ve always said “gyre” with the affricate and “gimble” with the stop. I wonder what the “Annotated Alice” says on the subject (it’s one of the tens of thousands of my books that have Gone Away, alas).

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