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'GIF' beats 'YOLO,' 'superstorm' as Oxford American Dictionary word of the year

Nov. 12, 2012 at 8:17 PM ET

Oxford University Press /
"GIF" beat out "nomophobia" ("anxiety caused by being without one's mobile phone") and YOLO ("you only live once") as the Oxford Dictionaries USA Word of the Year 2012.

The Oxford American Dictionaries announced Monday that its 2012 word of the year is "GIF," an image format which just celebrated its 25th anniversary, but has entered a new vogue as a verb following its adoption by social networks.

GIF stands for "graphics interchange format," and is one of the oldest image types used online. In fact, the first image ever uploaded to what we now know as the World WIde Web (once just a small network of computers in a Swiss lab) was a GIF.

The GIF format gradually gave way to JPEG, which is better for photographs, but the ability to animate GIFs let them survive with a cult following. But in the last year, because of the ease with which they can now be created and shared, GIFs have exploded in popularity.

Much of the credit is due to sites like 4chan and Reddit, where innumerable anonymous members frequently create bizarre and sometimes hilarious memes, some of which have penetrated into pop culture (often to their creators' dismay). Recently, more people have taken to using GIFs as a compact, universally accepted form of low-fidelity video.

Devin Coldewey / TODAY.com /
One of many popular meme GIFs, the "Deal with it dog" has been widely shared.

Although the format has limited resolution and color reproduction, sharing and embedding is extremely simple, meaning a popular GIF can spread like wildfire across Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook and other social networks.

And how do you say it? Its creators say it with a soft g, making it sound like "jiff," but many people also use a hard g, which makes sense considering the "g" in the acronym owes itself to the hard g of "graphics." Both pronunciations are popular and valid, so like pop and soda, both will likely stay in use.

The Oxford American Dictionary's word of the year is meant to reflect "the ethos of the year," as well as potential for future use, writes Katherine Connor Martin, a lexicographer in Oxford University Press' New York office, on Oxford's blog.

And this year it had some serious competition:

  • YOLO, short for "You only live once," a rallying cry among impulsive personalities that was coined earlier this year, and an acronym that is "typically used as rationale or endorsement for impulsive or irresponsible behavior," Martin writes.
  • Superstorm, not the most original construction, but frequently used in reference to post-Hurricane Sandy-turned-hellacious tropical storm and likely will apply to future storms as well.
  • Higgs boson, an elusive elementary particle crucial to physicists' understanding of the subatomic world — not something one uses every day, but its relevance and prevalence are unquestionable.
  • Nomophobia, an invented word for the anxiety produced when separated from one's mobile phone (no + mo(bile) + phobia).

The UK has its own Oxford word of the year, as well. This year it's "omnishambles," meaning something that was mismanaged in every way from the very start won this time around.

More potential winners can be found at the Oxford American Dictionary's blog post announcing the winner, which also has some links to selected GIFs Oxford thought of as worthwhile.

GIF may be newly relevant, but it isn't new. Here are a few recent additions to dictionaries that you might recognize:

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