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The Great GNU/Linux Division

With or without the nod to GNU, desktop Linux is still the same under the hood


“Nonsense prevails, modesty fails
Grace and virtue turn into stupidity
While the calendar fades almost all barricades to a pale compromise.”

– Elvis Costello, “All This Useless Beauty”

When I started selling articles regularly, I was careful to always talk about free software and GNU/Linux. The time was a few years into the millennium, not that many years after the term “open source” was coined as a more market-friendly term than “free software,” and whether it would win out was still in doubt. Moreover, the Free Software Foundation’s argument that the GNU Project deserved equal billing with the Linux kernel made perfect sense to me. Eventually, though, I had to admit that what was originally a noble cause had become a lost cause.

Unfortunately, that’s a realization that has yet to hit a small cadre of purists. You know who I mean — those whose main contribution to FOSS is to attack other advocates of the cause they claim to support and aggravate everyone with their punctiliousness.

My objection is not based on the idea that using proprietary software should be overlooked in the name of software freedom. Proprietary software was never part of the context of software freedom. I suspect that the paradox of tolerance applies: just as freedom of speech cannot tolerate those who speak against free speech, so software freedom cannot tolerate proprietary software. At best, proprietary software is a sometimes necessary evil for those who need to interact with other people, and using it should only be tolerated until a free-licensed alternative is available.

Rather, the continued insistence on purity of language seems a willful denial of the obvious fact that times have moved on. The days are long past when free software advocates refused to go to Linuxworld because it wasn’t “GNU/Linux World.” For example, six years ago I met Eben Moglen, the framer of the GNU General Public License, version 3, and the founder, president, and executive director of Software Freedom Law Center, at non-FOSS and non-GNU (but open source) OSCON — which shouldn’t be surprising, because many of his clients probably talk about open source.

When John Sullivan, the executive director of the Free Software Foundation, has a Twitter account, and FSF employees and long term contributors can be talked to on Facebook, it seems clear that the old standards for advocacy no longer apply. Probably few of the free software supporters on social media prefer such sites, but if they want to communicate they need to go where the people are. To condemn them for a lack of purity seems short-sighted — what should matter is their contributions over the decades.

Prescriptive Vs. Descriptive Language

Another reason for my change of language use was that I view grammar as descriptive, not prescriptive. By that, I mean that as a working writer I maintain that proper usage is based on how the majority use the language. It is not my role to tell people how they should talk or write. Instead, I need to write so that most people will understand — and by about 2009, I was tired of constantly explaining why I used “GNU/Linux,” or that what I referred to was what they call “Linux.” Similarly, while I was aware of the difference between the philosophies of free software and open source, I recognized that they had more in common than they had differences, and began to refer to “free and open source software” — which I always abbreviated to “FOSS” after the first mention in an article.

Admittedly, I was not pleased at such changes. But the battle was lost, and I was not going to be like Bonnie Prince Charlie and spend the rest of my life drunk and begging cash and bemoaning my permanent exile and the fact that the world had moved on. Richard Stallman might believe in prescriptive grammar, as evidenced by his refusal to accept “they” as the indefinite personal pronoun and recommendation for artificial pronouns, but if you look at history, prescriptive grammar has rarely — if ever — won out against common usage. To keep insisting on usages that stopped making sense a decade ago is only to add another hopeless cause to prescriptivism’s long list of rear guard actions. Nothing is more frustrating than futility.

Missing the Trends

Still, the purity testers would only be a minor annoyance, except that they can be harmful to the cause that they claim to support. By that, I mean that their dissections of other people’s behavior causes flame wars among people who ought to be allies. Their pettiness and lack of respect distract those who are adding to the FOSS ecosystem through code, documentation, or publicity.

But what really matters is that the insistence on purity often results in overlooking new technical developments that need to be addressed. For instance, in the last ten years, while Richard Stallman has dwelled on what he insists is the proper use of language, the organization he created, and its supporters, have been extremely slow to address the problems of new technology. Cloud applications, social media, encryption, open hardware — all these trends have been ignored by free software as a whole, long after the rest of the technology sector realized that these things were here to stay.

Admittedly, in the last few years the FSF has started to respond to these changes. Yet I can’t help thinking that software freedom would now be much better protected if the responses had happened several years earlier. Too often, worrying about terminology has had a higher priority than responding to new developments. That delay has only weakened free software as a whole.

Living in a Divided World

I have not abandoned the language of the purists altogether. For instance, I still refer to my distribution of choice as “Debian GNU/Linux,” because that is what project members prefer. Similarly, if an FSF employee asks that I use their preferred term, I will usually agree if I think the story I’m covering is one in which people should know the difference.

What has changed is my refusal to be overly-concerned about such matters of language. While language issues were worth discussing 20 years ago, the inability to move beyond them is obsessive and crankish today. If the purists really want to help free software, they would be more useful contributing to the project of their choice than clinging a cause that was lost years ago.

Editor’s note: FOSS Force’s policy is to generally use the term “Linux” to describe desktop Linux distributions. However, when the term might be confused for referring to other non-GNU Linux-based operating systems such as Chrome OS, the term GNU/Linux is used.


  1. Eric D. Eric D. April 22, 2019

    As I have been using “Linux” since 2002? I just see it like this:

    When you get a flat…..and head to the shop… don’t say ” I need to have a steel belted, rubber-compound, composite tread, motor vehicle tire replaced”. You might specify brand….(Firestone…..Goodyear)…..(similar to Debian….Fedora…..Puppy…SlackWare etc)…but you don’t drill down to the smallest definition. The same applies to Linux, if you USE Linux?….then you already KNOW it’s “proper name” is GNU/Linux!… don’t need to call it that everytime you reference it! But I guess there are those who can’t seem to let some issues go…eh?….

  2. Cory Hilliard Cory Hilliard April 22, 2019

    Will this debate ever die? No. The reason is because everyone is looking at this as a name and not what is really going on.

    Richard M. Stallman is so focused on the popularity of Linux, that he’s forgotten what matters. That he’s responsible for the popularity of Linux because of the GPL.

    We need both GNU and LINUX. Not GNU/Linux. Linux is NOT a part of the FSF. Linux isn’t controlled by RMS. It has ZERO business being called GNU, because it’s NOT GNU. We need the option of GNU to keep Linux and other projects alive.

    One of the freedoms we have (as stated by RMS) is the freedom to create new projects from other software. That new project becomes our own project. That’s the freedom we get. Instead of reinventing the wheel, we get to make bicycles now… and cars… and unicycles! Just because I make a bicycle now, doesn’t mean my project is now owned by The Wheel Company. Linus’ project is his own, regardless of what other software is included.

    If I created a new project and started calling it GNU/whatever… but it wasn’t managed by or a part of GNU, I bet RMS would get his lawyers involved. So then why is he pushing GNU/Linux so much? It’s because of the popularity of Linux. Which means he’s cheating on his own Freedoms.

    RMS should be proud of the success of Linux. It’s because of the GPL that we have what we have.

    Believe me, we also NEED the GNU project. It matters too. But not as GNU/Linux, we need it as GNU. All on its own, without anything added to it.

  3. Kazriko Kazriko April 22, 2019

    The description is actually helpful again these days since there’s now Linux without GNU as well as Linux with GNU.

    In particular, Android is Linux without GNU, and ChromeOS is Linux with some GNU. OpenWRT and other Router firmwares also have greatly reduced GNU presence, having most GNU stuff swapped out for Busybox or Toybox. Genode also can run on top of Linux without having GNU software.

    Also, some variants of Void Linux and Alpine Linux have removed a lot of GNU.

  4. IGnatius T Foobar IGnatius T Foobar April 22, 2019

    No one who is serious about Linux calls it “GNU/Linux”. That’s just an inane sobriquet pushed by pinko commie leftists like Stallman who want to impose their Orwellian newspeak on the entire community.

  5. gnat gnat April 23, 2019

    I’m still waiting for the awkward stammered pronunciation to be corrected from a hard G to what the rest of the world uses (silent G). Maybe I should post as a github issue somewhere…

  6. Laxator2 Laxator2 April 23, 2019

    FOSS had won the battle it set out to fight originally, but the technology world got disrupted by something else: the shift to services.
    Unfortunately, this is no longer a software issue, but an infrastructure issue. It takes a lot of money to run the servers and pay for the network bandwith, and individual developers donating their spare time will not solve this problem.
    Not sure even “personal cloud” and other hardware initiatives will address this problem, simply because of the halo effect of the large service providers.

  7. Christine Hall Christine Hall April 23, 2019

    Laxator2, you’ve pretty much nailed it. The as-a-service paradigm, especially consumers’ acceptance of SaaS has served to further marginalize FOSS. Like you, I don’t see a workaround for that.

  8. Mark Mark April 23, 2019

    I agree with the editor’s note! I’ve found myself sometimes saying GNU/Linux more recently not because I use Linux or anything to do with the FSF’s original reasoning, but simply to distinguish the desktop operating systems that are usually called Linux from the Linux kernel, and other operating systems like Android that use the Linux kernel.

    Even if language is descriptive, we also shouldn’t allow language to lead people to misleading statements, such as “Linux is now the most popular OS!” claiming that therefore applies to the desktop Linux distributions too.

  9. Mike Mike April 23, 2019


    You stepped in it. This comment section already has all the typical sides: defenders of GNU/Linux, the indifferent, those opposed on practical or linguistic grounds, people taking a position without understanding what they are saying (Cory Hilliard), and mindless trolls (IGnatius T Foobar)

    I use both depending on context, but I am far from strict about it. But I do think it is important for people to understand how things fit together.

    Some fun examples:

    Linux – is a kernel, not an operating system, but it is also a convenient shorthand for “An operating system using a Linux kernel and a bunch of other software, which may or may not be GNU, but typically is.” GNU/Linux is also an acceptable shorthand for this.

    Arch – is a GNU/Linux distro. Linux distro is also ok because I am lazy.

    Debian – refers to many things: It can have Linux, FreeBSD, NetBSD and Hurd kernels. Calling Debian Linux can be completely and decidedly wrong if you are using a different kernel.

    Android – is a Linux-based operating system, but has the GNU components stripped out, because Google hates freedom. 🙂

    To address Cory’s incorrect assumptions: Linus didn’t write Fedora, Debian, Arch, Slackware, Android, or Chrome. Nobody is suggesting renaming the kernel GNU/Linux. They’re speaking of entire Linux distributions. GNU/Linux isn’t some attempt to steal popularity from Linux. It’s an attempt to recognize that what we typically call Linux-based operating systems (which isn’t wrong, just imprecise) are largely based upon GNU software. Your typical Linux operating system isn’t going to do a lot without bash, gcc, glibc, grub and a whole host of other GNU projects. Yes it’s possible to make a Linux distro without much GNU (See Android), but most do use it (and a lot of it), even if only to compile the kernel and all the non-gnu applications on it (see gcc). GNU/Linux is just a sign of respect. That’s all.

    Using GNU/Linux doesn’t make one a zealot and not using it doesn’t make one a cretin.

  10. Will Will April 23, 2019

    My first thought of reply was considerably snarkier. Let’s just say that too much idol worshipping is going on in the GNU/Linux debate RMS vs Torvalds – gross, neither is a particularly stellar role model and while they both deserve significant credit for what they have done to promote software freedom, they didn’t do their work alone, millions of people have contributed to the current state of affairs. Pioneers? Maybe, although plenty of RMS’s contemporaries strongly debate the originality of his work and Torvalds has admitted his standing on the shoulders of others. Inventors? Not so much (although Git is pretty amazing). Innovators and opportunists? Absolutely.

    Calling Mint / Debian / Ubuntu / Arch / Gentoo, GNU/Linux is goofy and forced. GNU is not UNIX? and yet, these environments are decidedly unix-like. Linux was created to provide a unix-like environment and not as a rebellion against it. Calling it GNU is almost a slap in the face to the folks who actually did the work of inventing and implementing Unix at Bell Labs and those who poured blood sweat and tears into creating free software for and eventually extending that system (Berkeley, UNSW, etc), work that GNU functionally replicated and called not-unix even as it demanded fealty from Linux implementors using its tools to create unix-like environments – nuts!

  11. Scott Dowdle Scott Dowdle April 23, 2019

    If Richard Stallman lived to be 500 years old, he could still be traveling the world and speaking to people who aren’t familiar with free software. The war hasn’t been lost… as it is a continuous, aka never ending one… as long as babies continue to be born. For those of us, and I’m among that number, who have been inside of the community for decades+ sure, it might be over for us… but again, not those new people.

    I didn’t find much value in this article… and no, I’m not one of those purists… but of course, when given the choice, I prefer free and open source software.

  12. Scott Dowdle Scott Dowdle April 23, 2019


    Regarding your response to Laxator2 and the idea that free software has lost to (proprietary) SaaS… don’t count FOSS out yet. Red Hat (and others) have been working hard to provide FOSS alternatives. See this video as an overview of the trend you speak of… and how FOSS is competing:

    A Greybeard’s Worst Nightmare

  13. Mike Mike April 23, 2019


    > “Calling Mint / Debian / Ubuntu / Arch / Gentoo, GNU/Linux is goofy and forced…Calling it GNU is almost a slap in the face to the folks who actually did the work of inventing and implementing Unix at Bell Labs”

    No more so than calling it Linux is a slap in the face to Bell Labs.

    Linux is to some extent a huge free software re-implementation of a unix-like kernel.

    GNU is to some extent a huge free software re-implementation of a unix-like userspace.

    You are rewriting history a bit I think in that GNU open source efforts predate any attempt to open source BSD or any unix…some had source available, but that is certainly not the same thing.

    Actually Linux-based operating systems have become a lot less ‘decidedly unix-like’ since the introduction of systemd, but that is a whole different flamewar.

    Why does this whole thing remind me of the old Reese’s commercial “You got chocolate in my peanut butter!”?

  14. Mike Mike April 23, 2019

    Here’s some fun…

    In the absence of a canonical (no pun intended) “linux distro”, I decided to see the makeup of the various packages used in Linux From Scratch 8.4:

    GNU components

    Non-GNU components

    Make of that whatever you will. I just think it’s interesting.

  15. Anonymous Anonymous April 23, 2019

    I agree with Scott Dowdle.

  16. Hallo Spencer Hallo Spencer April 23, 2019

    Linux is a kernel.

  17. Cory Hilliard Cory Hilliard April 23, 2019

    No, Mike, you’re wrong.

    I bet you’re one of those guys that wears a toga to the FOSS meetings.

  18. Mike Mike April 23, 2019


    You’ll have to do better than sad ad hominems to prove me wrong. Try some facts, if you can.

  19. Cory Hilliard Cory Hilliard April 23, 2019

    No, I just like getting under the skin of people like you that don’t believe in the four freedoms don’t apply to the creator of those freedoms.

    “The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1)”

    Any PROJECT that uses GNU tools and software that is NOT a part of GNU means the new project isn’t a part of GNU or the FSF and has no business tainting the beauty that GNU is.

    By the way, from now on, I’m going to say “GNU is not Linux”, just to see people’s head explode.

  20. Cory Hilliard Cory Hilliard April 23, 2019

    *and* don’t apply to the creator of those freedoms.

  21. Mike Mike April 23, 2019


    Logic isn’t your strong suit, is it. You are attributing to me things that only exist in your head. I’ve heard they have some very effective medications for that these days.

  22. Cory Hilliard Cory Hilliard April 24, 2019

    Ad hominems? BAHAHAHA!

  23. Michael Isberg Michael Isberg April 24, 2019

    This is an interesting topic. I claim that without RMS and GNU we wouldn’t be where we are today. But the same goes for Linux (kernel). So why is it not named GNU/Linux? On the other hand “Linux” is the name that is used today and is familiar to everyone, why change it?
    The popularity and the widespread use of GNU and Linux today should be rewarding enough for everyone that’s been involved from the beginning, or shouldn’t it? Why not call it C/GNU/Linux, because most of the OS is written in C?
    I really don’t know and it’s not going to be solved in this comment section. It’s a complex question.
    The only thing to do is for the big players in the game to sit down and discuss it through, or just keep the name.

  24. Laxator2 Laxator2 April 24, 2019

    I would like to thank Christine Hall for the reply, and to add that the original battle fought by FOSS was between freedom and control. It was easy to know who were your friends ans who were your enemies.
    With the shift to SaaS the battle is one between freedom and convenience, and unfortunately a large majority of the users will prefer convenience.
    As for Scott Dowdle’s reply, I will watch the video and listen carefully. I agree that FOSS has not lost, but the new battle is a lot murkier. Take Google for example, they put Linux (as Android) on most mobile phones and sold more Linux running laptops (Chromebooks) than any other company. At the same time they made large parts of Android closed source and are using FOSS to lock-in customers. And with their new OS in the pipe (Fuchsia ?) Linux will disappear from mobile phones just as quickly as it took over that market. So, is this a friend or an enemy ? Not very clear to me.

  25. A friend of GNU and Linux A friend of GNU and Linux April 24, 2019

    It’s a Microsoft problem and a problem of Linus Torvalds being born too late. The biggest part of the PC computer world grew up using DOS and Windows, referred to as operating systems. Microsoft DOS, Microsoft Windows. Everybody knew these. Then something new came to the private computer user world out of nowhere: a new operating system with the big difference that it was not created by one corporation but by two different “corporations”. That operating system would only be able to function with the work of both “corporations” combined. There was no “GNU” operating system and there was no “Linux” operating system. Only those two combinend were able to give the (home user) computer world a thing they could refer to as an “operating system” in terms of “Windows” or “DOS”. GNU tools are useless without a kernel. The Linux kernel is useless without surrounding tools. So “GNU/Linux” would be the only correct name for it, of course. – Nowadays some things have changed. Most “distributions” still build on the GNU/Linux basement, so that name for them is still absolutely appropriate. But others are not. There are Linux distributions (almost) without GNU tools that must/should not be referred to as “GNU/Linux”. But calling all other distributions not falling into the latter category something else than “GNU/Linux” is wrong, an insult or at least some inappropriate lazy behavior. Sadly, I also mostly refer to it as just “Linux” – out of laziness but I know and support that “GNU/Linux” is absolutely right. Anyone not willing to accept that the only “right” name is “GNU/Linux” should be punished by being forced to use the Linux kernel without GNU tools, which would jail them into “Google”-prisons like Android or “lightweight” distributions like Alpine Linux with all constraints attached to it.

  26. Dave Mawdsley Dave Mawdsley April 24, 2019

    When I use “Linux” for my writing or speaking, it’s my global nickname for whatever proper label really applies. Apparently some word-police folks don’t like my choice. That’s okay with me and the rest of my day is going to be just fine.

  27. Mike Mike April 24, 2019

    Laxator2 is right about Fuchsia being a real danger to Android/Linux on mobile phones. What little freedom we have on mobile will disappear in the blink of an eye.

    Hardware freedom is the real cure, but the situation there is still dire.

    Unfortunately Linus hasn’t always come down on the right side of that debate, stating that tivoization is just fine. Moving the kernel to GPL3 years ago may have helped, but that boat has sailed.

  28. Mike Mike April 24, 2019

    @ A friend of GNU and Linux

    Thanks, but no. I know about Purism and I am not a fan.

    I was an early backer of the Librem 15, but after a conversation with the CEO, I backed out.

    They have been deceptive (or at least misleading) since the beginning. They promise a lot, but deliver something qualitatively different from their promises. I’d go into the technical details if you’re really interested, but mostly I just avoid talking about them.

  29. A friend of GNU and Linux A friend of GNU and Linux April 24, 2019

    @Mike: I’m going to judge them by the Librem 5 (of which I’m a backer). It all sounds (too?) good so far (like a “must have” kind of hardware), but let’s see what gets delivered.

  30. Seth G Seth G April 24, 2019

    I feel like the comments here are proving the point of this article. And thank you for the article, by the way. Words have the meaning we (society) give them. Nothing more, nothing less. To rail against this is pointless. Also FOSS is cool, Linux et al.

  31. Thad Thad April 24, 2019

    I’ve definitely got some prescriptivist tendencies, but I’ve been trying to relax them and become more of a descriptivist in recent years. The purpose of language is effective communication. If your language is not precise enough, that can hurt communication — but if you spend all your time nitpicking other people’s word choice instead of engaging the clear meaning of their statements, that ain’t so great for effective communication, either.

    Whether I call it “Linux” or “GNU/Linux” largely depends on context — will people know what I’m talking about if I just say Linux?

    As other posters have pointed out, “GNU/Linux” can actually be a useful, clarifying distinction, as we now have OS’s that use the Linux kernel but do not use the GNU userland. If I say “GNU/Linux”, I’m specifically excluding Android and ChromeOS. This is a useful distinction in certain context (such as when I talk about my interest in upcoming phones that run GNU/Linux).

  32. Sum Yung Gai Sum Yung Gai April 24, 2019

    Generally, I will use “GNU/Linux” when talking with folks like other techies who are familiar with that operating environment. When dealing with Microsoft-using folks, I will use “GNU/Linux” and “Linux” as synonyms, so that they hear “GNU” in this context from time to time.

    As for Free Software vs. Open Source, I am definitely in the camp of software freedom. When discussing it with others, I also use the term, “FOSS”, or “Free/Open Source Software”.

    Should someone else say “Linux” or “Open Source” or similar, I don’t get upset. Rather, I’m pleased that they’re discussing Free Software, regardless of which term they’re using. It’s important to be nice. And I nicely inform them that their Android phones that they’re typing into are Linux-based. A lot of people who thought, “Linux is only for hard-core techies” perk up at that. 🙂 I then tell ’em their ChromeBooks are also Linux-based. “What…really? I thought it was Mac!” Yes, I’ve actually heard that before. Nope, Linux. 🙂

    What matters is that A.) we get people to understand the need for FOSS and the ideals behind it, and B.) we get people actually using it. We do those things, we win.


  33. Andrew McGlashan Andrew McGlashan April 26, 2019

    Not going to bother to read your post, I am most unhappy about the censored comments of the other article.

    If you don’t like what was said, fine, but there is no good reason to censor the comments just because you don’t agree with them. All of my comments were on topic and reasonable given the arguments you made in the original post.

  34. Andrew McGlashan Andrew McGlashan April 26, 2019

    Sorry, please delete the above comment and this one; I mistakenly returned to the wrong post that didn’t have any comments from myself.

    Please accept my humble apology.

    Sorry for the extra noise here.

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