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Oxford American Dictionary's word of the year: 'GIF'

The word 'GIF,' which has been ever-present in pop culture, beat out other terms like 'Eurogeddon' and 'super PAC.'

By Husna Haq / November 14, 2012

The K-pop hit 'Gangnam Style,' and its popularity based on GIFs, was one of the reasons the Oxford American Dictionary chose the word 'GIF' as its term of the year.

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In yet another example of the “Internet’s ongoing takeover of the English language,” Oxford American Dictionary has announced that 2012’s word of the year is ‘GIF.’

What?

If you, like us, spend more time with your nose in a book than in tech circles, here’s a primer: GIF, which is actually an acronym that stands for “graphic interchange format,” is a compressed file format for images that can be used to create simple, jerky, looping animations. The word, traditionally used as a noun, is a longstanding part of Internet meme culture and has been in use for 25 years. But, Oxford American Dictionary claims, this is the first year it “broke free of the bounds of being a mere noun, transcending into the territory of verbs, where GIF has come to mean ‘to create a GIF file of (an image or video sequence, especially relating to an event),’” according to The Week.

“The GIF, a compressed file format for images that can be used to create simple, looping animations, turned 25 this year, but like so many other relics of the 80s, it has never been trendier,” Katherine Martin, Head of the US Dictionaries Program at Oxford University Press USA, said in a press release marking the announcement.

“GIF celebrated a lexical milestone in 2012, gaining traction as a verb, not just a noun. The GIF has evolved from a medium for pop-cultural memes into a tool with serious applications including research and journalism, and its lexical identity is transforming to keep pace.”

Oxford included a list of “Highlights of the year in GIFing,” including its contributions to the viral ubiquity of Gangnam Style, the pop-hit Korean music video; as a tool in covering Olympic events; and its use in live-GIFing the presidential debates.

Amazingly, GIF beat out other contenders such as Eurogeddon, the potential financial collapse of the European Union countries that have adopted the euro; nomophobia, anxiety caused by being without one’s mobile phone (from no + mo(bile) + phobia); super PAC, a type of independent political action committee which may raise unlimited sums of money from corporations, unions, and individuals; superstorm, an unusually large and destructive storm, as in “superstorm Sandy”; and YOLO, an acronym for "you only live once," typically used as a rationale for impulsive behavior.

GIF joins other recent popular tech-oriented words like ‘podcast,’ ‘tweet,’ ‘blog,’ and ‘google.’

As odd as we find this year’s selection, we can’t argue that it – and its fellow contenders – provides a fascinating window into the zeitgeist of 2012.

And now, back to our favorite lexicographer, Samuel Johnson.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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