You Say Linux, I Say GNU/Linux

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Jun 25, 2010 GMT
Bruce Byfield

The older I get, the more certain I am that most discussions consist of arguing over half-truths. In fact, the more strongly everyone argues, the more likely that nobody has the complete truth. And nowhere does these hard-won truisms seem more accurate than in the age-old argument over whether the operating system we all live by should be called Linux or GNU/Linux. Yet that does not mean that you should necessarily avoid taking a position, and, in my case, I have come down -- with some reservations -- on the side of using GNU/Linux.

This argument recently flared up again on the GNOME Foundation mailing list. If you've been around the community awhile, you know the arguments: Free software supporters say that the operating system should be called GNU/Linux to honor the two projects that produced it. On the other side, people say that the name is awkward, and, since everyone has been calling the operating system Linux for ages anyway, a change in name is impossible.

For good measure, proponents of using simply "Linux" add that, if the GNU Project and the Linux kernel are to be singled out, then the X Window System and other key pieces of software should also be included in the name. Usually, this claim is followed by an attack on Richard Stallman, the Free Software Foundation and their supporters, in which they are described as obstinate, out-dated, and irrelevant. Often, these attacks are distinctly heated, and seem the real point of the discussion for those who favor using "Linux."

These are the ways that this issue are always debated. Very few add even a dusting of anything new on either side.

Choosing a Side

I have argued on both sides of this debate in my time. When I was new to the community and working in marketing (for my sins), I argued in favor of Linux. Like everyone keeps saying, it's shorter, snappier, and better known. In short, it made better copy for me.

However, as I moved away from marketing and my concerns shifted, using GNU/Linux made more sense to me. Since then, I have used the term whenever I write, although editors frequently change my usage without consulting me.

What made me change? Mainly the fact that good copy no longer matters to me as much as getting at the truth does.

Not that the side I've abandoned is lacking a few points. Yes, Stallman frequently dwells on the language he considers correct -- to the extent that he sometimes seems to neglect other issues. In fact, when I heard him speak last year, he seemed to focus on correct language whenever he was at a loss about how to respond.

But that does not mean that his emphasis is always misplaced. Framing the terms of a discussion influences how people think about it. And if you don't believe that, tell me: is a person who breaks into computers a hacker or a cracker? I've met very few people who are willing to concede to popular usage in that case.

In the same way, how many in the community would object to the Free Software Foundation's renaming of Digital Rights Management to the more accurate Digital Restrictions Management? The ire seems reserved for "GNU/Linux" alone, which suggests to me that the real issue for some of the people in this endless debate is their dislike of the free software position. Fair enough, but don't try to hide your motivations -- especially not from yourself.

Moreover, the more you delve, the more the double-barrelled term seems a reflection of what really happened in the early 1990s, when the operating system was cobbled together.

Sure, countless projects contributed to the operating system we know today. But it was the decision to merge Linux and the GNU Project that was pivotal in its creation. You used to be able to see that in configuration files and man pages attributed to Free Software Foundation employees like Ian Murdock in 1993-4, although those attributions no longer seem to be present for some reason. The GNU Project contributed not only applications, but considerable development time as well -- to say nothing of the licensing that played such a large role in its success.

The argument that other projects also deserve credit is really nothing except a reduction to absurdity -- a classical logical fallacy. And we all know that attacking the person instead of the argument is equally invalid, right? Stallman can be a prickly person (and, the last time we interacted, he demanded an apology that I do not believe I owe), but that in no way disproves his argument, any more than the increasing nastiness of some of his opponents completely discredits their position.

Anarchist's Choice

If I have settled on "GNU/Linux", the reason is not that I agree completely with all that the usage implies and reject all the arguments on the other side. Rather, it indicates that I consider it more accurate than plain "Linux."

But there is also another reason that I use "GNU/Linux." That hyphen, as awkward as it is, signals to those in the know exactly where I stand in the discussion of free and open source software. As a bit of shorthand, the term is both convenient and honest, and allows me to get to the substance more quickly.

Not that the term completely satisfies me. When I can, I try to avoid it, talking instead about free and open source software (FOSS), which is usually more accurate anyway. But I'm not writing poetry here -- I'm writing about computers and software, both of which are fields so riddled with ugly acronyms and unhelpful bits of jargon that I hardly think one more is going to do any damage.

However, I don't go about urging people to follow my usage. I've made my decision, and I've got enough of an anarchist streak to be content to have other people make choices that I consider wrong (which is precisely why I'm so hopeless at selling anybody anything). I just wish that others on both sides would grant everyone the same privilege.


  • Free (as in Freedom) and Open-Source

    A name have to talk about itself, so instead of Linux, you have to say GNU/Linux, do you call Windows NTOSKRL or NTLDR ? I hope not, so call GNU/Linux on it real name, or if you care of being Free, stop Saying just "Linux", I call it "GNU/Linux", but something hurt me : "Linux", I don't need a Kernel if it is Open-Source instead of Free.

    What is the difference between Free and Open-Source ? Ethic.
    What is the difference between GNU project and Linux project ? One is Free, the other look like capitalistDOS, just care of being useful, don't care of being free.
    Why being Free ? Because the world can be better, just if you want to change it.
    How do I speak about GNU/Linux with my friends ? I say : "It's Free, as in Freedom, you hate Capitalist using DOS ? You'll like GNU project."
  • Let's get away from the names altogether

    It is quite clear that the GNU project, which originally was going to include a kernel (Hurd, which in 20+ years has not matured enough to be usable on a typical every day system). Linux, developed about that same time, nearly twenty years ago, was a kernel, but it couldn't have done much more without some core utilities. Furthermore, it is clear that a kernel and core utilities would not have gone anywhere without the help of BOTH the core utilities and the kernel, but also a set of key applications.

    Today, at long last, after decades of trying to make something work in the market place, companies are starting to produce products containing the Linux kernel. Sometimes they include GNU utilities, sometimes they don't. But the best ones don't make a big deal about whether they use Linux, BSD, GNU, or a mix of all of them and more. They brand their product by their OWN name, and only for those who look for the technical specifications are mentions of Linux or BSD or GNU even made - though in the case of GNU code, the source code must (and typically IS) available for those who are interested.

    To me, brand the system with your OWN brand, and let the names Linux, GNU, BSD, Java, or whatever, come out in the technical specifications of what you've chosen to use. Any other nonsense is meaningless in the commercial sector.

    In the technical sector, we'll probably be having these pointless arguments until I die, so I will not be the one to try to stop them, I'll just be amused by them and move along with what I am doing next. So here are my four short paragraphs of amusement; it will be a while before I am likely to comment on this topic again.
  • ...?

    "GNU" + "Linux" = "Linux"
    "Android" + "Linux" = "Android"?

    Doesn't make any sense to me

    BTW they do indeed refer to "Android/Linux" when talking about that OS. I do consider GNU/Linux correct because it does help to differentiate between it and other Linuxes such as android. I've had someone tell me I should be able to run certain GNU/Linux software on my phone because "its Linux"
  • Thanks

    Thanks for writing this article! The other comments show that the free software position is indeed irrating to many.z
  • Translate

    Hello. I would like to translate this text in french. What is the license ?
  • Correction

    It was Ulrich Drepper, not Roland McGrath who started to port glibc 1.09 to Linux:
  • Trying to fix broken link
  • Why not GNU/Linux

    Here are some arguments against calling the OS GNU/Linux.

    1. Awkwardness of the Name
    1.1. Phonotactics
    The recommended pronunciation of GNU (guh-new without the uh) violates English phonotactics.
    1.2. Slash
    The recommended pronunciation of GNU/Linux (GNU Slash Linux) is not suitable for international use. OT1H, if you pronounce it as "GNU Slash Linux" in a language other than English then you must explain that Slash, unlike GNU or Linux, is not a project, it is just the English word for /. OTOH, if you translate Slash into every human language then you will not have an international name for the OS.

    2. Credit
    The name is not the place to give credit. With GNU's logic, television should be called radio/television and Christianity Judaism/Christianity. From a planet inhabitant's perspective, air and water are vital, still we do not call our planet Earth/Water/Air, just simply Earth.

    3. History
    3.1. The Jigsaw Puzzle metaphor
    A recurring metaphor is that Linux was just the last missing piece from the GNU puzzle. Cf.
    Historically, it is not true. On 25 August 1991, Linus Torvalds' did not announce a kernel to be used in GNU in place of HURD but a new operating system:
    Torvalds needed an OS for his 386 AT clone. He could not use GNU because you cannot use an operating system without a kernel. Submitting his kernel to GNU was out of question. At that time the GNU project was working on HURD and did not consider replacing it with a monolithic kernel. Since Torvalds could not submit his kernel to GNU, he started a new operating system project which he described as "just a hobby, won't be big and professional like gnu". You see? He compared his project to GNU, not HURD.
    3.2. Ports & Forks
    In the announcement of his new OS, Torvalds writes that he has ported bash and gcc to it. Software is ported between operating systems (or architectures) not inside an operating system. Glibc was forked as libc in early Linux. When Roland McGrath started porting GNU's Glibc to Linux, RMS did not like it:
    3.3. Linux predates GNU/Linux
    The OS was called Linux as early as 1991. GNU/Linux came one year later:

    4. Linux without GNU
    DeLi Linux is a Linux distribution that uses uClibc instead of Glibc and BusyBox instead of GNU Core Utilities.

    So for me, Linux is the operating system and its kernel is called the _Linux kernel_.
  • Not the change of name

    This response is actually prompted by comment written by *judicator*, which seems to suggest FSF is trying to change the name of Linux. Please note, that I'm not associated with FSF in any way; I just think this is simply untrue. I won't event comment on the reductio ad absurdum part of his comment, which was already discussed by the Author of this post.

    First of all, nobody is trying to change the name of the program written by Linus Torvalds et al., the kernel called by its original author "Linux". This kind of understanding stems from -- I believe -- ignorance of the history (as *Graziano Sorbaioli* already said "Please know the history of the OS you are using"blunk.

    Every UNIX-like operating system is a collection of programs. For that collection the name was chosen in 1983 as "GNU". Even though every single program in that collection has its own name, the name of the collection as a whole is GNU. In that time, of course, Linux, hasn't even existed. Linux was born in 1991, when the only major program missing from the GNU System was the kernel. With the last piece in place, the GNU System was completed.

    So it's not the FSF, who's trying to change the name of Linux; it's the name of GNU which has been for some reason changed to Linux around the early 1990's. Nobody is trying to deny Linux its rightful place of a very important component of the system.

    That being said, when it makes sense, I'm using the name GNU for the system I'm using. Sometimes it makes sense pointing out which kernel I'm using with my system (or I simply want to give credit to people, which have done a really good job) and then I'm using the designation GNU/Linux, which for me means the GNU System with Linux as a kernel. Of course, it's a truly wonderful thing about UNIX-like OSes, that you can replace some of it's parts with different programs and so one can use GNU with different kernels, and then this differentiation makes a lot of sense.
  • please know the history of the OS you are using

    GNU operating system initial announcement: September 1983
    Linux KERNEL release: 1991

    The aim of the GNU project was to create a fully free software operating system to give freedom to computer users, the aim of Linux was to create a kernel "just for fun" as he wrote in his own book.

    Please know the history of the OS you are using
  • Richard Stallman,FOSS,FSF Don't seem to respect my choice.

    Lets see here a quick run through of what I use on a daily basis
    Nvidia Proprietary drivers X
    AMD Proprietary Drivers X
    Sun hardware running Linux X
    2 Windows Machines X
    Non-Free Web Browsers
    Non-Free Fonts
    Non-Free Codecs

    Something tells me GNU would not support my thinking or the way I handle my O.S.? Linux is my O.S. of choice I can use GNU because of the restrictions they've enforced on the open software world. Which is rather a contradiction of themselves? Right? Freedom as in Free speech as long as you don't break the rules of Freedom?
  • not again !

    Shall we say too :
    - Gates/Windows ?
    - Telsa/battery ?
    - Lumiere/theater ?
    - Edison/phone ?

    Or more acuratly :
    - BSD/MACOSX ? or better : GNU/BSD/MACOSX ?

    Shall we say : XEROX/MOUSE ? or better : APPLE/MOUSE?

    There is no end in it ...... please stop with that ....... What is the right of GNU to change the name of LINUX for it's own glory ? None ..... Linux is Linux and GNU is GNU .....

    Better : GNU and LINUX are more or less is a cold was since Linus doesn't aprove the GPLv3. So how one can think a second to mix those two words together were they are, right now, in two different roads ?

    If GNU is in a lack of merits (witch surprise me because many programs recall that they are GNU) : Just stop to have a Guru witch had his brillant moment but now isn't what he used to be (I won't enter in more details in order not to attract flames).

    Every one has his merit, GNU does not have the merit to change LINUX name. But has the merit to be overpresent in it and in Linux and in BSD and in MACOS ....... At the end GNU has more success than LINUX itself so my though about calling GNU/LINUX is : what the f___ you are yelling about getting more merit ?

    Best regards,
  • vonskippy

    Amen, Friend. The only way Linux is successful outside of us "geeks" is peaceful co-existence with Windows and Apple there not going anywhere but GNU/Stallman/FSF need to branch off it's really the only solution.
  • GNU GNU Not userfriendly

    I'm a staunch Linux user. I don't have any connection with GNU or FOSS Richard Stallman preaches nothing but harm to the Linux userbase There's always going to be proprietary software ALWAYS FOSS is dangerous it's holding Linux back with the uber-restrictive GPL (I use Kubuntu Lucid & CEntOS & Slack) I have proprietary software installed on all my systems from Chrome-Opera-To anything I feel I need GNU will forever damage Linux and its spread due to there restrictive ties just my opinion though believe what you want.
  • What BS

    What bull crap. Have you ever been at a party, and talked with a newly minted PhD, and they keep reminding you to call them "doctor"? Then when you walk away all you can think is "what a pompous asshat". That's EXACTLY what this GNU nonsense is. Nobody but the stick-up-their-butt GNU players (like Stallman) gives a rats ass about that stupid title. In real life, it means absolutely nothing, so get over it already. Gesh, GNU, Stallman, FSF are Linux's worst enemy - not Microsoft or Apple.
  • I like GNU & Linux

    I prefer not to put GNU (over) Linux. I like to give them the same importance and GNU & Linux sounds cool to me.
  • I use GNU/Linux

    I use GNU/Linux because i think the GNU project deserves credit. To me i think it all comes down to freedom and equality between developer and user. The most vitriol comes from the group that sees GNULinux as a business opportunity only, and that for these people, user freedom is secondary to developer control.

    The vitriol towards stallman's GNU/GPL stems from having to share improvements they made to code they got for free. They like the idea of open source because they get the benefit of a free labour pool, but they don't want to share any improvements they make because it is all about getting to the market faster, and preventing any competition to their market .

    Isn't it odd that people who extoll the virtues of free market capitalism, do the opposite and work feverishly on limiting a free market in favour of monopoly control? What, competition? We can't have that! Definatley not collaboration either! That's communism that is!

    The reality is most capitalists hate free markets. A market where there is choice is a splintered market that profits for a single organization will be limited due to competition. GNU/GPL is a threat to monopoly control. Thus the bitter verbal abuse towards GNU, and why they drop the GNU from GNULinux.

    It's funny how Stallman is called ant-captitalist. This is obviously false. He in my opinion is a free market captialist. He prefers a level playing field where people can share, collaborate, innovate, and compete freely. His detractors are threatened by this because it has the potential of collapsing their control and profit model. Captive markets are where it is at for them. They are in my opinion market monopoly captialists. They prefer the appeance of competition over actual competition. You know things like https://secure.wikimedia.or...iki/Anti-competitive_practices.

    This is why i use GNU/Linux.
  • I didn't bother to read the article nor the comments

    Stop waste your energy for this idiotic topic. Microsoft has 93% of worlds computers, and the linux community bothers with @#%#$@(
  • Thanks

    An excellent, honest, sane, well thought-through, mature article from the top to the bottom of the page.

    If only anyone were listening on either side of the debate.
  • Won't this silly old debate ever end?

    Usually I side with Stallman, but not this time. GNU is a stupid name and he could have avoided a lot of fuss if he'd picked something more sensible in the first place, or if he and Torvalds had stopped bashing heads long enough to agree on a third name.

    Maybe the worst thing about GNU is that it's inspired a tradition of bad names, some of which are even worse. Consider PAN (Pimp Ass Newsreader), Eye of Gnome, and worst of all, GIMP. What were these people thinking?
  • today linux != gnu/linux

    I've started to use GNU/Linux around 1998. At that time you could say Linux == GNU/Linux. For a long time I also tended to prefer the "Linux" term, as it was less verbose.

    Today the story is different. We have Android for once. A lot of companies advertise that they are producing Linux devices or phones while, actually, they produce Android gadgets.

    Yes, Android is Linux, but Android is not GNU/Linux.

    This was enough to determine me to say that I am using GNU/Linux. And that I'm not using or interested in using Linux without GNU. At least until that whatever Linux doesn't give me as much freedom as the GNU/Linux I love and hate happy
  • It will be known as "Linux"

    The public has no idea what "Linux", "UNIX", or "Gnu Foundation" stand for or their etymology, nor do the care. They want a simple, easy to remember word as an identifier. For that reason every facial tissue is a "Kleenex" and every "citizen of the United States of America" is an "American". Linux is that simple word for the GNU/Linux system, like it or not.

    Pedantry only impresses pedants while the world moves on.
  • TomAYto - TomAHto

    First, let me preface by stating that I call it Linux. But this is only because I started using it in November 1991 when there wasn't any other name for it. (Well, except for Lynux, but that was quickly remedied) Now, onto the fun...

    Personally, I think that the argument is extremely trivial outside of the Open Source/Free Software communities. People in the "real world" don't give a hoot what it's called. That is one reason it is such a firebrand within the community. People will argue very strongly over an issue that is as inconsequential as this one. If it were truly important a consensus would be reached and the argument would fall to some other trivial aspect (probably to fight over whether it should be GNU/Linux or Linux/GNU). The Distro Wars™ are the same thing. Red Hat vs Ubuntu, for example, is like arguing over an apple pie made with cane sugar and organic apples or one with regular sugar and store bought apples. Those eating the pie don't care as long as it tastes good and fills the belly nicely.

    As for Stallman and the FSF, I personally find his annoying but he is one of the most critically important people in the entire Open Source/Free Software world. We need to have anchors on both sides of the spectrum. There are plenty on the opposite side but only RMS/FSF on the other. We need balance or we will not be able to move forward.

    I have a theory; While there are many different personality types in the OS/FS community, we are all Alpha Dogs when it comes to our techieness. If we don't have something to battle about for the sake of establishing dominance we can't really be Alpha, can we. So we pick useless things like rpm vs deb vs source, GNOME vs KDE vs Xfce vs <insert_your_desktop_choice_here>, *BSD vs Linux vs MS WinXX, and a host of other arguments that really don't make a difference in the practical world.

    The debate over Linux vs GNU/Linux is a religious one. It is only of concern to us hardcore techies of the FOSS community. The rest of the world wouldn't care if it's called Fred. They only care if it works and gets the job done.

  • Clarifications will be more important in the future

    My personal take on the whole discussion is basically that talking about Linux as the operating system is relevant as long as you talk about hardware related stuff like file systems, drivers etc. The GNU/Linux clarification is some sort of strange middle ground where other things relevant for a modern system, like Xorg, DE, package manager etc are not mentioned. In this more "user oriented" definition of an operating system I think it is more relevant to talk about the distribution names (ubuntu, fedora, opensuse, mandriva etc...). An interesting development the last couple of years however are all the Linux-based operating systems that are not GNU-based (although the kernel is still compiled by GCC, but that might also change in the future when LLVM/Clang evolves) such as Android etc. A really interesting project at the moment is the statically linked "linux system" (they do not call themselves a distribution), where most binaries are derived from Plan9port or openBSD and the Android bionic libc will be the preferred libc to use (although alternative libc:s such as eglibc will also be included for stuff that needs it - a nice side effect of static linking is that you can base your entire system on different libraries without issues). This system will only contain a minimal fraction of GNU, the things that are needed to self-host (like GCC etc).
    Considering the minimal inclusion of GNU in, I think it would be as stupid to call this system a GNU/Linux system as it would be to call FreeBSD or any of the other BSDs GNU systems just because they (currently) depend on GCC as systems compiler.
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