I Say Linux, You Say GNU/Linux


It has been a while since my last post and so to kick start the blog up again I thought I would write a little opinion piece.

This article has come about because every time I post a link on Twitter with the #Linux tag I get a tweet from a guy calling himself Richard Stallman (@rmsthebot) telling me that I should be using GNU/Linux and not Linux.

Why The Fuss?

Linux really just amounts to the Kernel. The average Linux distribution has more GNU in it than Linux. GNU generally refers to a collection of tools and libraries shipped along with the Linux kernel  such as the GNU CoreUtils, C compiler, BASH etc.

Logically speaking if I were to write an article stating that there is a new release of a Linux distribution available I should say the GNU/Linux distribution because otherwise I am giving all the credit to the Linux kernel and no credit to GNU.

So in theory every time I use the word Linux I should say GNU/Linux unless I am specifically talking about the kernel.

This Is All Of Course Nonsense

Everybody knows Linux as Linux. Nobody really uses the term GNU/Linux do they? If you look at the magazines on the shelf of your local newsagents then you will see “Linux Format“, “Linux User And Developer” and “Linux Journal“.

The truth is that barely anybody uses the term GNU/Linux. Does anybody really care that the Linux Action Show isn’t called the GNU/Linux Action Show or that Linux Luddites aren’t the GNU/Linux Luddites?

Average users don’t care that by grouping applications, desktops and the Linux kernel together you are now talking about GNU/Linux and not just Linux.

Even Linus Agrees

According to this Wikipedia page  (and everybody knows Wikipedia is always right) Linux Torvalds agrees with me:

Well, I think it’s justified, but it’s justified if you actually make a GNU distribution of Linux … the same way that I think that “Red Hat Linux” is fine, or “SuSE Linux” or “Debian Linux”, because if you actually make your own distribution of Linux, you get to name the thing, but calling Linux in general “GNU Linux” I think is just ridiculous

There Is Already Enough Confusion

New users to Linux already have enough to be confused about with hundreds of distributions, dozens of desktop environments, an incredible selection of software packages for each type of application, different packaging systems and different installers and even different ways to create a bootable USB drive.

If that isn’t enough new users have to understand the difference between a standard bios and UEFI, xinit and systemd, mir and wayland.

I think making users care whether you call it Linux or GNU/Linux is just completely unnecessary. So @RMSTheBot I am afraid I will not be acquiescing to your request. I will continue to use the #Linux tag.

What do you think? Do you call it Linux or GNU/Linux?




  1. If you refer to the kernel : Linux.
    If you refer to a distribution
    – with GNU apps around the Linux kernel : GNU/Linux,
    – with GNU apps around the Hurd kernel : GNU/Hurd,
    – with Android around the Linux kernel : Android/Linux.

    If you don't refer to anything, …

    • Yes, this is what I do as well. Just Linux would be unclear as it can be about Android, GNU/Linux, etc. Often the specific OS, Ubuntu, CentOS, etc. is even more important, so I tend to use that.
      When people use just Linux to refer to a complete system, they are often unaware how many different operating systems are based on the Linux kernel and how different these systems tend to be from each other.

  2. For a man that preaches freedom, he sure doesn't follow his own vision. Linux is a project that Linux Torvalds started. He doesn't share the same views or opinions that RMS shares… so there is a forking of desire and goals. RMS is quick to point this out. He is just jealous that Linux gets all the attention. If he was a little more humble and not such a douche I'm sure people would love to give him credit for all that he has done for free software. But for him to carry on like he is, he's only hurting himself and his vision. Free software is free. No restrictions. If he demands everyone acknowledge him for what he's contributed, then where is everyone else's recognition? He's not the only one that has donated time, money, resources into free software. He should be embarrassed by wasting time with such stupidity. My advice to you? Tell him to go fist himself.

  3. Linux is the operating system the GNU software can run on it and many none GNU software can run on it. so the GNU is pretty ridiculous. I my self see everything as a tool for computing. The kernel is free but that does not mean the software that runs on it has to be. Android hello. I call android Linux. every thing they changed in the kernel is seen.Android software runs on the linux O/S and that is the kernel.

  4. I am on Stallman's side in this post you have posted a quotation from Linus opting that GNU or FSF should produce their own distribution and than call that as GNU Linux. My suggestion for Linus, kernel developers, distro vendors and opensource community is that they should write a new set of compiler collections, utilities and licenses in order to end this debate as it is headache every time I read it

  5. I generally just use the term Linux, unless I am taking care to distinguish it from something else I am talking about (like perhaps when I am talking about the difference between the Android operating system and the GNU/Linux operating system, since they both use the Linux kernel, but they are not the same operating system).

    If someone asks me what operating system I run, though, I will say, "Linux," because then nobody will assume I'm talking about Android or anything else.

    I do think it's good for people who might use Linux to know about the background of the system, which means knowing about the GNU project and Free Software. However, I don't think that always calling the system "GNU/Linux" really serves any purpose toward accomplishing that. It's generally unwieldy as a term, and people tend to shorten terms to something easy. Perhaps it could have been GNU, but the odd nature of the term and its pronunciation really gave Linux a better chance at general use.

  6. There may be a lot of GNU software installed by a Linux distro, but the average user barely runs it. From the user perspective there are more important components like X.org, Firefox, VLC and such. From all desktop environments, only GNOME has any relation to GNU, but even that relation is weak, as the main GNOME developer is now Red Hat.
    One can easily have Linux with no GNU (there are multiple alternatives), but GNU without Linux is really tough considering the development status of Hurd.
    Really, those insisting on the "GNU/" prefix are pretty much RMS and his fan club.
    What OS am I running? Fedora. Just Fedora, without the "Linux" part.

  7. GNU is the base Operating System which many kernels can run on top it, e.g. hurd, minix, linux, KfreeBSD, etc. Linux is just one of the kernels.
    If the only kernel was Linux, there could be some thoughts, but now the main question is "GNU or GNU/Linux?". The "Linux" is just out of question. I prefer GNU/Linux, because it tells which kerel is running in the GNU system and can decrease the debugging time.

  8. In the modern day of Desktop Environments and systemd GNU programs only play a very small part in the process. The standards defined by the freedesktop.org group and the software produced under that umbrella is far more influential and provides far more of the core operating system compoents then GNU does, atleast on desktop systems.

    So maybe there was merit to GNU/Linux 10-20 years ago these days if your going to say anything to distinguish it from the operating system running linux with a android userspace or busybox userspace in the case of alot of embedded projects I guess we should say FreeDesktop.org/Linux or prehaps at a big stretch FreeDesktop.org/Linux built on the GNU toolchain, but i don't think the compiler tools are important enough and define the system enough to need to be mentioned in the title

    Personally if i'm talking about something thats applicable to most standard Linux distros I just say Linux and people know what I mean.

    • The C library for most desktop and server systems is from GNU, and that's a pretty big item. Of course a lot of embedded operating systems use uclibc and busybox, so there's not much GNU there, though the API is still similar, unlike with Android.

  9. << Everybody knows Linux as Linux. Nobody really uses the term GNU/Linux do they? If you look at the magazines on the shelf of your local newsagents then you will see "Linux Format", "Linux User And Developer" and "Linux Journal". >>

    That IS nonsense #1

    Everybody knows hackers are all bad guys. That IS nonsense #2

    Everybody 1000 year ago know Earth was flat. That IS nonsense #3

    Bad common people knowledge doesn't make sense. Just let people who knows teach to others.

    Sorry for my bad english: I am nonsense #4

  10. I think it is unfortunate that people call the entire os as Linux. I don't mind saying Linux when I'm with non tech savvy people, of course I don't want to confuse them. But then you mostly need to talk about it with the other knowledgeable guys. If you say Linux, those knowing it's just a kernel will think you're dumb. If you say GNU/Linux some will think you're siding with the unwashed-hippie-paranoid-1984-silly people that started the os.

    That is the communication problem. But then there's the actual problem. When people like Linux, they don't really like the kernel. Everybody (as in our community) talks about and wishes for Linux to thrive. Android did. But are we really happy about it? No. What we actually want is for free software to thrive. We want our beloved desktop environments and cool window managers, our package managers and community driven operating systems to thrive. We want bash to become mainstream and coreutils to be more popular. That’s why I think calling it Linux was a bad move.

  11. I think this has been taken out of proportion. Imagine if people had to deal with this in every aspect of their lives?
    Q: What do you drive?
    A: An Escalade
    *: You have to say a CADILLAC Escalade

    Q: What're you drinking?
    A: A latte.
    *: You have to say a MOCHA LATTE from STARBUCKS

    You see how ridiculous this is? If I'm speaking to someone who knows PC's and technology? I'll just tell 'em I'm installing "Linux" on my sister's laptop. If the conversation goes further? then I can explain that she's familiar with the W.I.M.P. format and I'm giving her Linux Mint with the MATE desktop environment. To a newbie to Linux this won't mean ANYTHING…so why then would I want to add more confusion to their lives by telling them they're getting Linux on their machine….but it's not like the GNU/Linux which I use at home? Listen….some arguments are best left alone…this is one of them. No one is taking away from R.M.S., his contributions and hard work will ALWAYS be appreciated, by the GNU/Linux community….the Hurd community…..hell even in the general world of technology!…but for people to constantly run around yelling at others to call their OS by it's "proper" name?….its asinine an quite immature. You don't donate a million dollars to a school or hospital and when someone mentions it you insist they call it the "Funded By Me-Wing" of St. Nowhere's Hospital……like I said…..asinine.

    • Mint is just Ubuntu with some repositories, so why not say that you're installing Ubuntu? Now you're confusing someone by talking about a kernel which is used in so many different systems it's a useless piece of info for a new person. If she'd need help with her system, she'd receive the most useful search hits by searching with Ubuntu as one of the keywords.

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