To GNU or Not to GNU? That Is the Question

There’s no denying the incendiary nature of the topic of desktop Linux, which tends to gets rehashed in heated detail every so often both on these pages and beyond.

What some may not remember, however, is that there’s another recurring Linux subject that can be equally controversial. It hasn’t appeared in some time, but apparently some slow fires have been burning all along, because they just flared up anew.

The topic in question, you ask? It’s not new — it’s GNU. Get it? Well, countless other Linux fans do too.

‘That Dreaded Question’

“That dreaded question came up again recently,” began the bloggers over at TuxRadar late last month.

Namely, “GNU/Linux or Linux?” was the topic of the site’s resulting Open Poll, which has seen more than 50 comments appear since the topic was posted.

As tends to be the case on the Linux blogs, consensus was in short supply. As also tends to be the case, commentary was not.

GNU/Linux? ‘GNever!’

“It may seem like a pain in the ass to give GNU credit when mentioning Linux, but they deserve it,” wrote Andrew Cole on the pro-GNU side in the TuxRadar comments, for example. “GCC is probably the most popular compiler on the planet, and none of us would be able to have our software freedom without RMS, so if he asks for this small thing in return, then I think it’s the least we can do.”

On the other hand, “GNever!” shot back Kansas penguin. “I have not and will not say ‘GNU/Linux.’ It’s not really in common usage, it’s three syllables longer, and I don’t give a flying penguin what RMS thinks about it.”

Then again: “Credit where credit is due,” began Tobi. “Hence we should always say ‘Frozen Bubble / Supertuxkart / Pink Ponies / Linux.’ Whoever fails to do that will spend the rest of eternity in hell, listen to endless recitals of the Free Software song!”

So which is it, Linux fans? To GNU or not to GNU?

GNU/Linux Girl took herself to the blogosphere’s seedy Punchy Penguin Saloon to find out.

‘It’s GNU/Linux, of Course’

“For me it’s GNU/LINUX, forever,” asserted Google+ blogger Pedro Gomes.

“I am all for GNU/Linux,” agreed Google+ blogger Alessandro Ebersol.

“Just Linux is something like Google’s Android — and we all have to thank Google for making the distinction very clear,” Ebersol explained. “It is just a kernel. The GNU brings the Free Open Source philosophy, which makes all the difference.”

And again: “It’s GNU/Linux, of course!” blogger Robert Pogson concurred. “Linux without GNU is useless unless you substitute something for that layer, like Android.

“We also have GNU/FreeBSD and Android/Linux,” Pogson added. “It’s all good. People who love Linux but hate GNU are crazy; people who think GNU is somehow irrelevant are deluded.”

‘It Is Just Too Awkward’

Others took a more measured view.

“I think Richard Stallman has done an immense service in promoting Free Software, and there is absolutely no question that there would never have been a Linux without the GNU toolkit that Stallman had ready when it was needed,” offered Google+ blogger Kevin O’Brien, for instance.

“But as a practical matter, no one other than RMS and a few of his close friends is going to use the name ‘GNU/Linux,'” O’Brien added. “It is just too awkward.”

Indeed, “it’s Linux,” agreed consultant and blogger Gerhard Mack. “The public recognizes it as Linux, so it’s Linux. The alternative would be a string like GNU/OPEN/, but that would just be silly.

“I appreciate the fantastic work the GNU folks have done in laying the foundation of everything that’s free, but constantly fighting this battle is counterproductive,” Mack added.

‘Too Much Baggage’

That last bit, in fact, was an opinion expressed by more than a few bloggers.

“The Linux community spends too much of its energy on things such as nomenclature,” asserted Roberto Lim, a lawyer and blogger on Mobile Raptor, for example.

“My own take on the matter is, who cares?” Lim added. “A name is just a name — it is not the place to seek recognition. A name needs to be easy to say and catchy.”

Not only that, but “GNU/Linux or Linux carries too much baggage,” he went on. “Linux is a nice catchy name, but maybe it would really be best if it was simply dropped all together (HERESY!).”

‘Some Nutter That Squats at MIT’

Slashdot blogger hairyfeet took that suggestion even further.

“Are you kidding me? Is it April 1st and I missed a memo?” hairyfeet exclaimed. “You are getting curb-stomped by Apple and MSFT and this — THIS — is what you care about? Whether some nutter that squats at MIT and makes up his own meaning for words gets credit he doesn’t deserve?”

Even without Stallman’s contributions, “Linux would NOT BE CHANGED,” hairyfeet added. “Linus could have used the already available BSD toolset and it wouldn’t have changed a thing — in fact, it probably would have helped Linux, as it would have had more business adoption and thus would have had more money and support.”

In short, “this insanity of calling Linux GNU anything is just that: insanity,” he concluded.

‘What Right Does RMS Have?’

“Linux is a software ecosystem; GNU is a software ecosystem,” noted Chris Travers, a Slashdot blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project. “I think it’s better to talk about individual packages as being in one or both.”

It’s not helpful, however, “to talk about systems and how we have to name them,” Travers opined. “If it was, would we want to call Windows systems with SUA and the GNU Utilities installed ‘GNU/Windows’?”

Indeed, “GNU utilities on a Windows/SUA system are likely to be as central to the operation of the computer as GNU utilities on Ubuntu used as a laptop by a non-sysadmin and non-programmer,” Travers pointed out. “But the objection would be that Windows is poor advertising for GNU because Windows is not Free Software, so what right does RMS have to adopt the Linux kernel in this manner?”

‘A Pompous Affectation’

Last but not least, Barbara Hudson, a blogger on Slashdot who goes by “Tom” on the site, took a pragmatic view.

“Simple fact: The majority of people using Linux nowadays pronounce it ‘ANDROID,'” Hudson told Linux Girl. “The old farts can call Linux whatever they want — nobody is paying attention to them.”

Hudson has never actually heard someone call it “GNU/Linux,” she said.

“Prepending GNU comes across as a pompous affectation, and is often accompanied by the childish compulsion to write M$ instead of Microsoft and complain about Apple’s walled garden,” she charged.

‘It’s an OS, Not a Religion’

In fact, “I did a small poll called, ‘who would you trust more’ on slashdot for Troll Tuesday,” Hudson explained.

“One of the questions was, ‘Who do you trust more: Someone who uses linux or someone who calls it GNU/Linux?'” she recounted. “Only one person picked GNU/Linux.

“As one poster wrote, ‘F*** the pedantically correct,'” Hudson said. “While I wouldn’t have put it quite that way, I can relate to the sentiment. It’s an OS, people, not a religion.”

Katherine Noyes has been writing from behind Linux Girl's cape since late 2007, but she knows how to be a reporter in real life, too. She's particularly interested in space, science, open source software and geeky things in general. You can also find her on Twitter and Google+.


  • "And again: "It’s GNU/Linux, of course!" blogger Robert Pogson concurred. "Linux without GNU is useless unless you substitute something for that layer, like Android."

    BusyBox/uClib/Linux is a perfectly functional system.

    There are also a lot of other people that reserved credit like the foundation. Singling out GNU seems like giving them too much credit. The people who do care already know the importance of GNU, those that don’t won’t learn just by seeing or hearing the term GNU/Linux.

    • >strip out every bit of GNU-crud and the system runs just fine

      Not going to get very far without glibc. Probably be pretty difficult to rewrite all the GPL’d code from scratch too.

      Also: troll harder.

  • GNU is a critical component of the Linux and Open Source ecosystem and the contributors to it deserve recognition.

    On the other hand, RMS is such a walking talking reproductive organ sometimes, it really hurts to give him the credit he deserves.

    • Yeah because you never heard of this little company called APPLE, only the largest corp on the entire planet, but that doesn’t ring any bells right?

      If RMS would have been erased from history NOTHING would have changed as far as Linux is concerned. Linus got his original idea from Minix NOT Hurd, BSD would have given him the toolset and compiler so NO difference there, you can’t even give RMS credit for GCC and Emacs because the current versions are FORKS that came about because devs were tired of his BS and when he saw everyone was leaving his version for the forks he "blessed" them to keep rom being made completely irrelevant!

      I repeat taking RMS out of history would do absolutely NOTHING to Linux, you can even strip out every bit of GNU-crud and the system runs just fine. Giving the squatter credit is the height of insanity and is like worried about a wrinkle in your clothes while you are getting your head bashed in by a bat. Apple is slaughtering in mobile, with tens of thousands camping like its a rock concert on release days, MSFT completely owns the desktop, and THIS, this is what you are worried about?

  • "Linus could have used the already available BSD toolset and it wouldn’t have changed a thing — in fact, it probably would have helped Linux, as it would have had more business adoption and thus would have had more money and support."

    Yah … because BSD is so much more widely used than Linux. That’s just a humdinger of an argument there, hairyfeet, based on inescapable logic. O_o

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