We here at Make Use Of try to make your switch to Linux as smooth as possible, which includes using simple and common terminology. However there are plenty of terms that are unavoidable or at least impractical to avoid. Some terms we can explain as we go along, but some are so common that they would need explaining in every article.
So here they are, but by no means is it a complete list since such a list would go on and on and bore us all to tears.
Instead I have collected a select few terms a new Linux user is likely to encounter, both on this site and other sources.
- Bash – An acronym that stands for Bourne Again SHell. It’s the default shell on most Linux distributions.
Cross-platform – Referring to any software that can be run on multiple operating systems (Windows, Linux, OS X etc.). Most open source software is cross-platform.
Desktop Environment – A generic term for a piece of software that works as a graphical interface between the user and the computer. In simpler terms, it’s the umbrella term for all the windows, files, icons, and menus that appear on your screen. Windows users may not know this term simply because Windows has only one DE, the default one that comes with every copy of Windows. In the Linux world though, there are many choices, although KDE (K Desktop Environment) and Gnome are by far the most popular. Most major distributions come with either KDE or Gnome.
Distribution – A Linux distribution (often abbreviated to “distro”) is the core Linux operating system combined with tools and applications. Various groups and individuals take it upon themselves to assemble these pieces and parts (and often create parts of their own) to form a distribution. They vary widely from user-friendly, multi-purpose distros like Ubuntu and PCLinuxOS to hardcore, ultra-hackable distros like Slackware and Arch. There are literally hundreds of choices, although we will generally be looking at only a handful.
Fork – A fork is an offshoot of an existing project into an entirely different project. For example, Ubuntu is a fork of Debian because the Ubuntu developers took Debian’s source code, modified it extensively, and started a whole new distro. This concept is very useful since it means there’s no need to “reinvent the wheel” when starting a new project and it allows developers of an existing project to strive for their personal ideals when they don’t see eye to eye with their teammates on the direction of the project.
Free as in freedom vs. free as in beer – To most people outside of the open source world, when software is called “free” it simply means it costs nothing to use. In the open source community however, the word “free” is the adjectival form of “freedom.” This means the user is free to do basically whatever they want with the software as long as they follow the software’s license.
GNU/Linux – This is a rarely used name for Linux, although it is technically more correct. See, GNU is an operating system with similar philosophies to Linux. After GNU was started in 1983 by Richard Stallman it slowly garnered everything an operating system needed, except a complete kernel. Naturally, the Linux kernel was combined with the various parts of GNU to form the operating system called GNU/Linux, although it is commonly called Linux today.
GPL – The GNU General Public License is a widely used open source software license. Basically, it is a legal document distributed with every copy of software under the license that provides freedom to the user to do pretty much anything they want with the software within the terms of the license. It is one of many dozens of such licenses although all are fairly similar with a few important differences.
Linux Kernel – The core part of the GNU/Linux operating system and the base of every distro. It acts as a negotiator or translator, if you will, between the hardware and the various applications.
Open source software – Computer software for which the source code, the lines of code written in one or more programming languages, is available to everyone to be modified, improved, redistributed, etc. The bulk of Linux and most of its applications are open source.
Package manager – Installing programs in Linux has always been tricky, but fortunately software called package mangers, along with repos have helped eases the problem if not completely eliminate it. Package managers allow a user to browse through thousands of free applications from repositories, download, and install them with a few clicks.
Partition – A sectioned off area of a hard drive. Most new computers come with only one large partition, the one that Windows occupies. If you want to install Linux you must first repartition your computer’s hard drive, meaning split it into two, one part for Windows and the other for Linux. Such a configuration is called dual booting.
Repository – Often abbreviated to “repo” it is a library of software that can be accessed via the internet using a package manager.
Shell – This is the Linux equivalent to the Windows Command Prompt, in which you type lines of code to interact with the computer instead of pointing and clicking. While the average Windows user never or rarely uses this method, Linux still relies on it for some tasks, with no graphical alternative.
Tux – Tux the penguin is the official mascot of Linux. Linux creator Linus Torvalds originally proposed penguins as the animals that would symbolize Linux. In 1996 Larry Ewing created “Tux” as we know him today. There’s no real reason why he’s the mascot except that he’s cute and that, like all mascots, he gives a face to the organization he represents.
Unix – An operating system that was developed way back in 1969 for academic use. In time, people began creating Unix-like operating systems that were very similar to Unix and a lot cheaper or free. Linux is one such operating system.
Wine – A program that allows the user to run applications designed for Windows in Linux. Wine is able to run many popular applications but its compatibility is far from perfect. See “How About Some Wine With Your Linux?” for more.
Familiar Vocabulary – With all this new terminology it’s easy to get overwhelmed, but it’s important to realize that Linux and the accompanying vocabulary aren’t completely foreign. Linux uses the same hardware as Windows so a mouse is still a mouse, a monitor is still a monitor, etc. Additionally, familiar terms like “windows” (notice the lowercase since I’m referring to the little boxes on the screen and not the OS), “cursor,” “menu” and dozens more are OS-independent.
Do you understand everything here? If you have any questions, let me know in the comments. Or maybe you disagree with one of my definitions? Any other Linux terms you’re not sure about? Again, let me know in the comments and let’s see if we can provide an easy to understand definition.
Abraham Kurp was introduced to open source software a few years ago and it was love at first site. When not preaching the virtues of open source he enjoys reading classic science fiction, playing obscure video games, dabbling in programming, and of course writing.