My last comment on "Linux" vs "GNU/Linux"

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Mar 27, 2013 GMT
Bruce Byfield

On Linux Advocates, Katherine Noyes recently raised the old question of whether the operating system should be called Linux or GNU/Linux. It's a topic I don't think much about these days, although I've had some unusual perspectives on it over the years.

You probably know the argument: given that the operating system was originally the result of cooperation between Linux kernel developers and the members of The GNU Project, both should be given credit in the name. True, countless other projects are involved, but the reference is to the core operating system, and to mention one without the other is to write the excluded founding organization out of history. Or so free software supporters maintain, especially Richard Stallman, who has sometimes refused to be interviewed without a promise that GNU/Linux be used.

Over the years, I've flip-flopped on the point several times. When I was a product manager and marketing director, I favored "Linux" simply because it was shorter and less clumsy-looking than "GNU/Linux," and therefore made for better copy.

However, as I became more involved in the community, I started having second thoughts. It wasn't just that Stallman has a point -- and Stallman, for all that he gets tiresome repeating the same ideas over and over, has an understanding of the implications of language that few of his critics can match.

Rather, I couldn't help noticing that many of the projects I admired most, such as Debian, used "GNU/Linux". The more I thought, the more I realized that I was a free software supporter, so using "GNU/Linux" seemed the logical thing for me to do. If nothing else, it immediately served notice about where I stood in relation to free software and open source. I was never pedantic about its use, and I never went around correcting anyone, either in person or indirectly as I transcribed an interview, but otherwise I always used "GNU/Linux" where I could.

Flip-flopping away
My preference hasn't changed since I first made that decision. However, circumstances have, to the point that my preference no longer matters.

To start with, Stallman insisted that I apologize for writing that he had made sexist comments at GUADEC in 2009. Since I took care to point out that a single comment didn't invalidate his life's work, I saw no reason. But, while I had previously been content to be taken for an uncritical supporter of the Free Software Foundation, I wanted to distance myself from Stallman's sexism. As a result, I became less careful in my usage.

For another, while I submitted copy that used "GNU/Linux", increasingly I found that editors would routinely change my terminology. With one editor, I even had a spoken agreement that I would use "GNU/Linux", and they would automatically replace it with Linux.

However, I was uncomfortably aware that this compromise was hypocritical -- and more than a little ludicrous. Perhaps with a bit of egotism, I eventually decided that the topics I wrote about were more important than remaining true to a stylistic convention that almost nobody else supported.

Yes, it was unfortunate that The GNU Project wasn't getting its due credit, but while I could see that, I wasn't prepared to refuse to write if my preferences were not honored. Editors have a name for such stubborn people -- non-contributors.

Anyway, insisting on "GNU/Linux" was rapidly becoming a lost cause. Part of the reason is that the free software position is less popular and less influential than it was when I started selling articles regularly.

But a larger reason is that the opposition of free software and open source simply isn't as important as it was a decade ago. In many circles, the distinction has given way to pragmatism, to getting the job done. Today, where you stand matters less than what you produce.

Whether this current state of affairs is desirable is debatable. However, it creates problems for a writer. If I insisted on using only "GNU/Linux," I would risk being dismissed as someone who clung to an old distinction that fewer and fewer people cared about. That perception could only distract from whatever argument I was making by calling attention to my preferences, which are likely to be irrelevant to the argument.

Conversely, for those unaware of the distinction, using "GNU/Linux" is apt to puzzle. They are going to wonder if it means the same as "Linux." Then, they are probably going to wonder why I am making the distinction. Nine times out of ten, they will be right to wonder -- it won't matter. So, once again, I will have distracted them for no useful purpose.

A single prominent writers can sometimes influence the language. But I have no reason to think I have the prominence to do even if I felt I should. Even if I did, writers generally influence usage when they are the first to discuss a topic -- and I  I am far from that. If I want to be understood, I have to use the common vocabulary.

For now, at least, the common vocabulary is "Linux," not "GNU/Linux." That isn't just, but in order to communicate, I accept the convention. Should the convention shift again, I'll reconsider, but for now, in most cases, "Linux" it is.


  • It's just "Linux"

    RMS can whine about it all he wants, but it's just Linux. All the sour grapes in the world are not going to rename our favorite operating system (or family of operating systems, if you prefer).

    Perhaps RMS was among the first to dream of a totally open source operating system, but he didn't finish the job. Linus finished the job. Too bad, so sad.

    It's just Linux.
  • why I call it "linux"

    Being a programmer, I'm predisposed to laziness, which is the number one reason I call it "linux" (with lower-case 'l'). When someone says "linux", either the listener isn't familiar with the OS, in which case, adding "GNU" is meaningless, or the listener is familiar with the OS so adding "GNU" is redundant.

    Richard Stallman's insistence on calling it GNU/Linux just comes across like a 5-year-old waving his arms and screaming, "Look at me Mom! Look at me Mom!" At some level, this annoys me.

    Then there's my problem with the GNU acronym: it's awkward to pronounce. Because of that, I pronounce GNU as "new", instead of "Guh-New". Since the only point of the G is to make a recursive acronym (because hey, it's nerdy and cool!), Stallman could've chosen any other letter that would make for a less awkward sounding pronunciation, like ONU, or heck, even GNU with a silent G, as I say it.
  • Now it actually IS relevant

    I've always considered the FSF's insistence upon "GNU/Linux" to be a manifestation of Richard Stallman's peculiar personality. If we're basing the name upon the number of lines of code making up the major parts of the distribution, you'd have to call Ubuntu something like "Ubuntu Gtk/Xorg/GNU/Linux/Unity". I fully understand wanting to be given credit for your part in a celebrated project; without the GNU stuff -- and the GPL -- Linux likely wouldn't have gained the traction it did (or maybe Linux enthusiasts would have forked the BSD libs, who knows.) Desktop Linux is GNU on Linux, no two ways about it, and usually some other crucial and very large packages as well.

    What my phone and tablet both run, however, is also Linux, but not GNU/Linux.

    For the first time, the mainstream operating system with the most units shipped has a Linux kernel... but little to no GNU code in it. I'm talking about Android, of course. Not Android/Linux or Dalvik/Linux, but Android. It wouldn't be possible without the Linux kernel (can you imagine the chaos and fragmentation that would have ensued if all the phone manufacturers had been able to take the Android kernel and make their own customizations to it without sharing them back?) but Linux's presence in Android is, for most users, a footnote.

    Just like GNU's presence in desktop Linux.

    Still, we now have GNU/Linux products, and products that are just Linux. For the first time, it's not a distinction without a difference. I use Android for its broad software support, openness compared to the other major mobile OS players, and wide availability on well-supported hardware, but on PCs I still use Linux, and it had better be GNU/Linux.
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