GNU/Linux, Linux, or something else. What’s in a name?

What’s in a name, and does it really matter what you call something? Well, apparently so…

Over the last couple of weeks the old flamewars of the title Linux versus GNU/Linux have reared their ugly head again. For those that don’t know the difference, or what these two technologies are, here is a quick explanation…


Linux is an open source kernel that has been in development for over 20 years now. It was founded back in the early 1990′s by technological legend Linus Torvalds. A kernel is a basically a special piece of software that sits in between your computers operating system (like Ubuntu, OSX or Windows) and the hardware like your hard drive, CPU and motherboard. Think of the kernel as a translator between software and hardware.

There are many operating systems that use the Linux kernel, Ubuntu, Debian, Fedora, OpenSUSE, and many more. Many people mistake Linux as the manufacturer of the operating system, much like what Microsoft is to Windows; or Apple to OSX. Some even think that Linux is the actual operating system – this is not the case. Linux is the computers kernel and nothing more. So when people say “I run Linux on my computer” this isn’t entirely correct.

GNU (GNU is Not Unix)

GNU is the granddaddy of all open source operating systems (the bit that sits on top of the kernel). It was created back in 1983 by Richard Stallman and has it’s own kernel called GNU Hurd. But once the mighty Linux came along in 1991, people started marrying the two together. Being open source, many people took GNU/Linux and made it there own. From this marriage of open source projects spawned the great many distributions that we see today on Distrowatch.

Most of what we have today under the GNU/Linux umbrella is only loosely based on GNU at best – but it’s roots are still there nevertheless. So, what should we call it? Linux? GNU/Linux? Or something different all together?

What’s in a name?

Many Linux elitist still insist on the name of GNU/Linux, Mr Stallman being one such case. However, GNU/Linux doesn’t roll off the tongue very well  and as I said before; most of what see today is highly developed and quite a long way from the original GNU platform. So by this naming convention should we start calling Ubuntu, “Ubuntu GNU/Linux”? Or should we now call OSX “Apple Mac OSX/XNU, with a bit of BSD”, or what about “Microsoft Windows/Windows Kernel” of course we shouldn’t. So why should Linux distributions be any different just because they are open source? The answer is simple; they shouldn’t.

Windows is called Windows, OSX is called OSX and Ubuntu is called Ubuntu – not Ubuntu GNU/Linux. I defy anyone to find the term “Ubuntu GNU/Linux” on the Ubuntu website - it doesn’t exist because that’s not it’s name.

Credit where credit’s due

I’m all for giving people credit for their accomplishments, and the geniuses that brought us these amazing systems get ample kudos for their work. So why do we need to make things overly complicated and have these ridiculous names? – well, we don’t. The open source elitists out there that claim the ‘proper’ names for things should be used are just being ridiculous.

Colloquialisms are used all the time in modern language, we call vacuum cleaners ‘Hoovers’, we call many different types of cola ‘Coke’, PA systems are generally called ‘Tannoy’s' this isn’t wrong, it’s just what we do and in doing so it doesn’t take any of the credit away from their creators, its just makes things easier for us.


The open source world is all about freedom of expression and sharing. So by it’s very nature we are free to call Linux, GNU/Linux, (or whatever you want to call it) any thing we like. Having these overly complicated names completely undermines open source technologies and instantly alienates people.

So if anyone is asking me (and I know they’re not but this is my website so I’m free to say what I want :P), then I say we call ‘Linux’ anything we want. Linux, GNU/Linux, or even Engelbert Humperdinck Linux – I/we shouldn’t care. What matters is that we all advocate open source technologies and share them when and where we can.

What do you guys think? Should we be giving these technologies their full titles, and does it even matter? We’d love to hear your thoughts, as always, in the comments below…

GNU/Linux, Linux, or something else. What’s in a name?
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  • Brett Legree

    I agree 100 percent Kev.

    I think you’ve said it best right here, “The open source world is all about freedom of expression and sharing. So by it’s very nature we are free to call Linux, GNU/Linux, (or whatever you want to call it) any thing we like.”

    Sadly I also find that many of the people who loudly tell us we have to call it GNU/Linux are also fond of telling us that we must run it exclusively or we’re “stupid, not free etc.”

    Umm… Freedom includes choice!

    • Kev Quirk

      I think we’re very much on the same page here Brett. Commercialisation isn’t a bad thing, exploitation is. I know it’s a fine line between the two but you can liberate proprietary software with FOSS. I personally use a mixture of the two and I see myself as an open source advocate.

      I suppose there are extremists in all walks of life though…

      • Brett Legree

        Exactly – many of the less extreme Linux users are gamers, perhaps, and they may choose to use closed source drivers to improve performance and then run Steam for Linux. They are using a mixture of open source and closed source software to enhance their own experience.

        On the other hand, you and I may choose to run a closed source operating system on a certain piece of hardware and then run open source software on top of that (this Windows 8 machine runs LibreOffice, GIMP, Firefox, Deluge etc. by choice, I could put licences for proprietary equivalents where available on here as I have them, but I like what’s here now).

        Really, what’s the difference, at least to the particular person using the machine? We’re using what we have as best we can to enjoy our experiences – that’s freedom in my book!

      • Kev Quirk

        Here here!

  • shadowguy14

    Was it that hard to explain the difference to me??? Thanks Kev!

  • Guillermo Garron

    Hi, Just today I have attended to one Mr. Stallman’s speech. I think he is right about wanting we to call it GNU / Linux. Of course we are free to call it whatever we want.

    I decided to start calling it GNU/Linux

    • Kev Quirk

      Thanks Guillermo, I’ve read your article but I still don’t agree with what you’re saying. That’s not to say you’re wrong, or that I’m wrong; it’s just a matter of opinion.

      Personally if I’m referring to a specific distro then I will use that distro’s name. For example, Ubuntu, or PinguyOS, or Fedora. I wouldn’t call them Ubuntu GNU/Linux etc…When referring to GNU/Linux based OS’s I use the blanket term “Linux” simple because it’s easier to say and less cumbersome. It’s not because there’s some GNU vendetta, it’s just because it’s easier to say.

      Credit where credit is due, yeah. But most people won’t overly complicate a name just for the sake of it.

      • Guillermo Garron

        Thanks for taking the time to read it.

        I don’t agree with you in this matter. But that’s OK. I don’t agree with all what Dr Stallman days either :)

        Have a nice day.

        BTW, I enjoy your site a lot. And I’m a regular reader.

      • Kev Quirk

        That’s totally fine Guillermo, disagreements breed conversations like this. We can’t agree 100% of the time. Life would be so boring is we all agreed on everything. :)

  • Salih Emin

    Totally agree…
    Linux is a Kernel and GNU is the toolchain. Now, from Stallmans point of view we should call it GNU/Linux… but then shouldn’t we give credit to everyone ? eg. Ubuntu:
    Shouldn’t we call it (according Stallmans theory) GNU/Linux/Xorg/Debian/Ubuntu ?
    Isn’t that silly ?
    Also.. how much GNU is left in GNU/Linux ? not much according Pedro Côrte-Real

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