To GIF or not to GIF

Because a moving picture is worth a million words

Each year, Oxford Dictionaries selects a word that has captured wide interest and conveys, in some way, the ethos of the year. For 2012, the winning American word of the year is GIF. Originally coined as a noun in 1987, the acronym for graphic interchange format has recently attained verb status. A GIF is a compressed file format for images that can be used to create simple, looping animations, as a source of humour in pop-cultural memes or in serious reporting. Journalists successfully GIFfed critical sporting moments in the 2012 London Olympics, and The Guardian and the microblog site, Tumblr, teamed up to live-GIF candidates' faux pas in the US presidential debates. But GIF's victory is not without its discontents.

Technophobes shudder as yet another electronic media tool brashly asserts itself as a form of mainstream journalism. Lovers of the English language bemoan its fall from grace and describe this as an omnishambles (which, incidentally, is the British word for the year, meaning "a situation that has been comprehensively mismanaged, and is characterised by a string of blunders and miscalculations"). Fans of the Canadian hip-hop artist, Drake, who coined one of the runner-ups — "YOLO", you only live once, a phrase that has become an excuse for reckless behaviour — rue their defeat. There is no consensus on whether GIF should be pronounced with a hard "g" (as in great) or a soft "g" (as in gem). Its spelling might evolve, from the conventional GIF to gif, to ease the aesthetic of the written GIF-fing to giffing.

The selection of the word of the year is symptomatic of technology's spreading dominance over the way we communicate with each other. No wonder, then, that another runner-up for this year's contest was "nomophobia" — the anxiety of being without one's cellphone.

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