that old GNU/Linux argument

Alexandre Oliva aoliva at
Fri Jul 18 03:03:13 UTC 2008

On Jul 17, 2008, "Patrick O'Callaghan" <pocallaghan at> wrote:

> On Thu, 2008-07-17 at 23:38 +0200, Björn Persson wrote:
>> programs. Therefore, contrary to what you wrote, GNU does fit Alexandre's 
>> definition of "operating system".

> Better tell him that, because he's not using the term in the way you
> describe. This isn't a question of right or wrong, it's one of
> consistency. If you check back on this thread you'll see that Alexandre
> repeatedly refers to GNU/Linux as (paraphrasing here) "the GNU Operating
> System plus the Linux kernel", which IIRC is in line with what the FSF
> says when promoting GNU/Linux as a name. If "the GNU Operating System"
> is complete, i.e. already has a kernel, then where does Linux fit in
> this scheme? By this token, you should be referring to the Operating
> System as GNU/Hurd, not as GNU.

If this was arithmetics or formal logic, you'd be absolutely correct,
and to be pedantically right we'd have to say GNU-Hurd+Linux.

However common sense kicks in: if you replace or remove any single
component of the large collection of programs that together amount to
an operating system, this won't make enough of a different to make it
a different operating system.  So, GNU-Hurd is still the GNU operating
system.  And if you add Linux or the OpenSolaris kernel or the FreeBSD
kernel, it's still the GNU operating system, running on top of a
different kernel.

Now compare this with the so common situation in which people take the
name of the kernel for the name of the operating system.  You replace
a single program, the kernel, that amounts to a small fraction of the
whole; adjust another component, say libc, and leave everything else
alone.  Would you say the name of the operating system should change
in this case?

> OTOH (and this is something I haven't raised before), what people in the
> great majority *do* say is Linux, not GNU/Linux.

Ad populum?  The great majority thinks Windows is part of the
computer, but that so many people make this mistake doesn't make it
right.  Oh, and they've never heard of GNU or Linux.

> You have every right to object to that on principle, but forgive my
> scepticism that it will actually change anything.

If it weren't for the very man who actually started asking people to
give credit to the project he started to give people freedom while
using computers to start this project, nothing would have changed
either, and we might very well find out we wouldn't have any Free
operating system to use.  Be skeptic as much as you want, but he has
already succeeded once at something that many thought impossible.

> But it's not going to change.

Everything eventually changes.

Alexandre Oliva
Free Software Evangelist  oliva@{,}
FSFLA Board Member       ¡Sé Libre! =>
Red Hat Compiler Engineer   aoliva@{,}

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