“The author’s intent” and the pronunciations /dʒɪf/ and /ɡɪf/

Recently there’s been a flareup of interest in that great question of our age, the correct pronunciation of the acronym “gif.”

An abbreviation for “graphics interface format,” some people pronounce this acronym /dʒɪf/ (as if it were spelled “jiff,”) while others say /ɡɪf/ (as if it were spelled, um, “gif.”)

Here’s a remark from Rachel Larimore, prompted by RuPaul’s declaration in favor of the pronunciation /dʒɪf/ (“jiff”):

One of the flashpoints in this weighty debate is the fact that the inventor of the gif format, Steve Wilhite, prefers to pronounce it as /dʒɪf/, while most other people pronounce it /ɡɪf/.   For my part, whatever authority Mr Wilhite might want to claim in this matter because of his role in creating the format is seriously undercut by the fact that he at least consented to, and possibly suggested, the acronym “gif.”  If he’d wanted us to say /dʒɪf/, the time to take that stand was when the acronym was being chosen.  The abbreviation “G.P.” on American military vehicles in the late 1930’s combined with the name of a character in Popeye comics gave rise to the pronunciation /dʒiːp/ and eventually to the word “jeep”; abbreviating “graphics interface format” as “gf” would likely have started people saying either /dʒɪf/ or /dʒiːf/ (“jeef,” as if it were the singular of “Jeeves.”) Once Mr Wilhite agreed to the abbreviation “gif,” it would be as silly for him to get upset with people for saying /ɡɪf/ as it would for the inventors of Play-Doh to be upset that their product is now used as something other than wallpaper cleaner.

I think that a lot of the emotional heat in this argument comes from a sense of unease about something basic to communication that is strangely difficult to put into words.  It is generally taken for granted that there is a relationship between the interpretation we ought to put on a message and the interpretation that the author of that message would have wanted us to put on it.  But when we set out to explain exactly what that relationship is, and how it applies to different kinds of messages, and how far it restricts the proper use of material objects created for the purpose of sending messages, and how exactly we came to have this moral obligation to recreate the author’s intended message inside our heads, and what the proper penalty is for failing to do so, and who counts as the author of what, and which of the various ideas that might have been in a particular person’s mind at various points in time count as authorial intent, the whole thing gets very slippery very fast. It’s one of those things like “time” or “truth” or “love” which we are all quite sure exists and makes demands on us, but which no one can satisfactorily explain. If authorial intent can’t settle a question as basic as the pronunciation of a three letter word, then it begins to seem as if we won’t be able to hold onto the concept of authorial intent at all. Without such a concept, it is by no means obvious how any form of communication would be possible.

On the other hand, it is also obvious that a work of art always says more than its creator intended it to say.  D. H. Lawrence (almost) said* “Never trust the teller, trust the tale,” and that is wise advice.  If that were not so, not only would it be impossible for any work of art to outlive the cultural moment in which it was produced; it would also be necessary for artists to go around continually explaining the meaning of each of their works to each person encountering that work.  If you’ve ever written a work of fiction, you know how this goes; you set to work thinking you’re going to tell one story, then find another story telling itself. After the writing is done, your readers start asking you questions about what you had intended by various things you put in the story, and half your challenge is coming up with non-embarrassing ways to admit that you hadn’t realized you put those things in until the reader pointed them out to you.

Even people who start discussions of the dispute between /dʒɪf/ and /ɡɪf/ by joking about the insignificance of the issue, and who never, in their conscious minds, accept the proposition that it matters very much which pronunciation becomes and remains most widespread, do often become quite passionate about their preferred pronunciation.  I think they do that because they have an uneasy feeling that, while the author’s intent matters, it is not the only thing that matters as we interpret a text.  The feeling is uneasy because it isn’t attached to a clear explanation of why and in what sense it is so.

That in turn gives us another example of the difficulty of using “authorial intent” as a standard of interpretation.  On the one hand, very few people would agree with the proposition that much is at stake in a debate about the pronunciations /dʒɪf/ and /ɡɪf/.  Even fewer are moved by such debates to write essays about the role of authorial intent in interpretation of text.  On the other hand, a great many people raise their voices, spend time contributing vitriolic posts to online forums, and take other actions that strongly suggest that they do believe that something important is hanging in the balance.  This raises the question of levels of intentionality.  At the level of willingness to assent to particular propositions, the authors of these passionate messages have no intention to send the message that it matters which pronunciation catches on.  At the level of behavior and affect, that is precisely the message they are sending.

*Lawrence actually said “Never trust the artist, trust the tale,” which is not only less memorable than the common misquotation, but is also confusing.  Is he saying that we should look for narrative content even in artworks that don’t seem to have it, and cast a leery eye on artists who don’t seem to be telling stories?  I’m sure it wasn’t his chief conscious intent to do so, but something like that may have been in the back of his mind somewhere.  Whether or not some such idea was rumbling around in Lawrence’s mind when he crafted the aphorism, it distracts from the point which “Never trust the teller, trust the tale” makes so pungently.

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