Jargon Jam – Linux

Jargon Jam
Jargon Jam

I’d thought I’d use today to launch a new series of articles I’m calling Jargon Jam. As you can probably guess from the title, the basic idea is to try and explain some of the jargon terms we Linux geeks use everyday, often without even thinking about it. The idea arose a few weeks ago at a tech conference when I realised that although I was talking to intelligent and technically savvy people, they had no idea what I meant by terms like Linux and Open Source, let alone the more complex terms. Someone asked me “should I install Ubuntu or Linux?”, I replied “Ubuntu is Linux” but this didn’t help a lot. There’s a lot of terminology we take for granted. It can put people off and I want to demystify some of it if I can. I’m not an expert or a guru by any stretch of the imagination but perhaps I can point you in the right direction if you’re new to all this. The basic premise is to focus one word each time and explain it in basic terms as quickly as possible. It’s a crash course if you will, for people who want and/or need it. I thought the best word to get us started would probably be the one I use most.



Linus Torvalds
Linus Torvalds

Contrary to popular belief Linux is not an operating system, at least not on it’s own. It’s a actually a kernel, which is the backbone of a system but needs to be bundled together with other things to make it truly useful.  You can think of it as the core of a system. When most people use the word Linux these days – and I’m guilty of this myself – they actually mean a Linux distribution of some sort. Red Hat, Ubuntu, Debian and so on. Names you may well have heard. The distributors package together the Linux kernel with other things to make it into a final product. The classic example being the GNU toolchain which lots of Unix or Unix -like systems use for basic functionality. They interact with the kernel. The Free Software Foundation would like everyone to use the name GNU/Linux when describing these Linux distributions to give credit. I can understand their position and I really appreciate the work of the GNU project, but in every day use it’s just easier and quicker to say Linux. People also remember it a lot more readily. That’s just the reality.


The Linux kernel was created in the early 90’s by Finnish programmer Linus Torvalds. It’s a pretty obvious play on his name but not one he was overly keen on. He thought it was pretentious but unluckily for him the name stuck. Today the Linux kernel is used for all kinds of things, not just on desktop computers and servers as you might expect. It’s embedded on devices such as mobile phones, Internet tablets, GPS devices and multimedia players (Tivo). In fact the chances are good that some electronic device in your house already runs on a Linux kernel and you don’t even know it. Linus still works on the kernel along with many others contributors, some paid by their employers to develop Linux and some who do it on a volunteer basis. Anyone can download the source code to the Linux kernel, take it apart to see how it works, modify it and submit those changes back to the group. This is the power of open source software. The kernel is licensed under version 2 of the GNU General Public License.  The Linux kernel has a cute mascot in Tux the penguin, you will probably have seen him around any time Linux is mentioned.

I’ll talk more about distributions, GNU and some of the other things I’ve referred to in future. For now just try to remember that the word Linux technically means the kernel at the core of the system. However a lot of people use it to refer to their operating system. There’s nothing wrong with that in my eyes but it’s really just a blanket term.


Hopefully that’s enough information to help you bluff your way on what Linux is, I’ll expand more in the coming weeks. If you’d like to read up more on the background please do by all means. Wikipedia is a great resource for this:

Further reading:

Thanks for reading, I hope this is of use to someone. If you’d like to suggest a term you hear used often but don’t fully understand please drop me an email or leave a comment here and I’ll be happy to look at it 🙂


  1. Well, I would actually argue that a kernel basically *is* an operating system and that everything in userspace is third party, but let’s not confuse people… 😉

    • @fab – Hehe yeah 😀 Well that’s the problem, 99% of people will have no clue what you’re talking about when you say userspace. Even computer people, I was shocked how little is known inside the IT world about all this. It makes me realise how small our little FLOSS corner of the world is and I think it would do us good to invite others in for a look around 🙂

  2. Well the term Operating System has been used and abused over the
    years. I’m quite happy with it including gobits of userspace as the
    kernel on it’s own doesn’t achieve much. Remember the OS on the eraly
    8/16 bit machines included such things as BASIC interpreters and GUI

    • @alex – You’re right that like so many terms in computing, Operating System has been changed to mean whatever each person means at that time. For me though the kernel is not an operating system in itself, you can’t really do much with just a kernel and nothing else, as you said. If I relate it to cars then I think the kernel is like the engine. It’s the core of the car, without it the car wouldn’t move but if you just have an engine and nothing else you’re not going to drive very far. You need all the other bits that make it a car 😀 Thanks for reading and commenting, it’s appreciated.

  3. Wow. I guess I knew a lot of this already, but it’s a good article either way. Can’t wait to see more Jargon Jam!

    • Thanks, I know this is old hat to most open source fans but I hope perhaps someone who needs the information will see it. You never know

  4. What a great idea for a set of articles. I completely agree with your comments about Linux v GNU/Linux.

    There’s so much that you could cover, but I would like to see you talk about open source and free software in a future article, as well as non-free software to watch out for in Linux. 😉

    • @lucy – Thanks, I’m detecting a slight agenda here hehe 🙂 I do intend to talk about the terms open source and free software in a future article though. I’ll also move onto things like distro, repo and all these basic things we say without thinking but a lot of people don’t understand. It’ll probably be boring for all the people who know what it’s about but I hope someone who doesn’t will read and get some use from it.

  5. @Dan Awesome, I know at least one person (probably about 10) who will be benefiting from those articles 🙂

  6. @Lucy – Thanks, good to know it’s not in vain then. Hopefully the series will be make a good set of teaching tools or basic grounding in geek terminology.

  7. I must completely agree with the folks who think this is a good idea for a series of articles. As you say, there are some of us out here who would gain little to no new information from these articles, however they will be a more than useful reference to point folks to when met with confused stares by our colleagues and friends during conversations. 🙂

    P.S.: I would like to see each of these articles also linked from/to and/or copy/pasted to other similar sources of useful information such as Wikipedia, LinuxJournal, etc, to ensure that the information posted here is easily found and widespread. Just a suggestion/idea. 😉

    • @silver knight – Thanks for the comment. I’ve tried to link to as many useful external articles as I can and included a further reading section. I can only hope some of them will link back. I could edit Wikipedia but it seems a bit cheeky to go into other people’s articles and add links to my own. Goes against the ethics of the thing a bit, though I might be the only one who pays attention to that it seems 😀

  8. Like you said in an earlier comment, many people in IT don’t understand some basic concepts about their computers, and it is really sad. I started dropping terms like userland and kernel modules with a Tech friend of mine and I got “that look”. Userland (or userspace) is not only FLOSS, but how all OS’s work (you hope). Separating the User from the Kernel is the only way to any kind of security, which is why even Microsoft is moving away from their previous design where it seemed everything ran at kernel-level.
    Which, of course causes problems with companies (Antivirus mostly) that were used to having full control when they wanted it.
    Here is a good discription of a Hybrid Kernel (microsoft) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hybrid_kernel and a monolithic kernel (linux) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monolithic_kernel

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