TL;DR: The use of the word "Linux" on this site is unclear.
See the answers for what to do about it.


The GNU/Linux naming controversy is an issue that has surprisingly not been brought up before on meta, so many people might not even know how ambiguous "Linux" has become this millennium. For people who haven't heard of it before, I have provided a summary. You can skip the following paragraph if you already know what it is.

The GNU operating system began development in 1984, so that the *nix goodness could be free for all. Lots of programs had been written, but the operating system was still missing a kernel. In 1991, Linus Torvalds created a kernel which he named Linux, and packaged it with GNU shortly afterwards. People started using this new system, and it soon became widespread, along with the name "Linux" which to many people referred to the operating system as a whole. But other people are cross that the whole thing is being called Linux, because Linux is just a single, small (albeit important) program in the entire operating system. See Linux and GNU for a longer explanation (from one point of view) and Wikipedia for more information about the conflict (at time of writing slightly biased towards the other).


The word "Linux" is ambiguous. Most people use the word "Linux" to mean GNU/Linux (the operating system / kernel pair), but this usage is not consistent, even on this site alone.

This site is called Unix & Linux Stack Exchange. It would be silly to try change that, even if there was majority consensus, and that is not what I am asking.

The first sentence of the tour page is as follows (emphasis mine):

Unix & Linux Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for users of Linux, FreeBSD and other Un*x-like operating systems.

This is confusing. "Linux is the name of a kernel, isn't it?", new users could think. You might consider this nitpicking, as the word "Linux" obviously refers to the operating system when it's right next to the words "operating system". But let's have a look at the tag wiki excerpt:

These questions are about Linux in general -- NOT specific to a particular distribution. If the question just happens to be in a Linux environment, please specify your Linux distribution in the body of your question, but do NOT use the /linux tag.

The tag wiki itself is fine, but the excerpt is not. Nowhere does it make it clear that it's referring mostly to the GNU operating system part, and not the Linux kernel (the part that's actually called "Linux"). Replacing the first sentence with:

These questions are about the Linux operating system in general

or, more "correctly":

These questions are about GNU/Linux in general

if you want to exclude pedantic people claiming "this means that Android's on-topic" and the like.

To avoid the standards proliferation issue, I have decided to limit my suggested solutions to the three most obvious ones. I do not necessarily agree with them all, especially as they contradict each other somewhat.

  • If I've missed any tags, please let me know so I can add them. – wizzwizz4 Oct 8 '16 at 17:52
  • The answers to this question are stubs. They currently exist mostly to be something people can vote on, but if you have any good arguments for a point please edit them in. – wizzwizz4 Oct 8 '16 at 17:53
  • Where are these years coming from? Linux kernel was first published in 1991 [1][2], even says so in the FSF articles you linked to. – sebasth Nov 5 '17 at 0:31
  • There is also a linux-kernel tag for questions about Linux kernel. – sebasth Nov 5 '17 at 0:34
  • @sebasth That was a typo. :-/ Thanks for pointing it out. – wizzwizz4 Nov 5 '17 at 8:32

Do nothing

This is not a problem; it is fine how it is. Any confusion caused is far too minor to require any action. Any possible gain is too small to be worth the effort.

  • Agreed, it's ambiguous but not wrong. And it's clarified by use of "operating system" in the paragraph. – loa_in_ Oct 15 '16 at 10:43
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    @loa_in_ It isn't clarified by the use of "operating system" everywhere. For example, the linux excerpt. – wizzwizz4 Oct 15 '16 at 13:25

Make this clearer

Use the phrases "operating system" or "kernel" where necessary to avoid ambiguity.


"Linux is the name of a kernel, isn't it?", new users could think.

No, because new users think that Linux is an operating system. Only a very few people who already know about the topic are aware that there's a kernel called Linux. And even if someone did know about the Linux kernel, the sentence is explicitly about operating systems, therefore there is no risk of ambiguity: the word “Linux” in this sentence refers to the operating system. Likewise, “FreeBSD” is both an operating system and a kernel, and in this sentence, the word refers to the operating system.

There is no confusion here, only a pretense at confusion by people with a political agenda. I'm not unsympathetic to this political agenda, but the time for it was the 1990s. Hurd wasn't available when people wanted a kernel, so Linux won, and Linux it is. Pick your battles. People shrink away from extremists.

You are perfectly free to use the term “GNU/X11/Apache/Linux/TeX/Perl/Python/FreeCiv” in your answers, but I don't recommend it — that will confuse the people who aren't in the know. You are not free to impose your terminology on the 99% of people who don't use it.

  • Your first paragraph is addressed in the next sentence from the quotation you took... but the second paragraph is a good point. I don't completely agree with it, as part of the reason is to give credit for the GNU project, but admittedly those who are arguing the most for it do have a political agenda. Despite being harsh, this answer is true. We'll just have to stick with "Linux" as a shorthand for "GNU/X11/Apache/Linux/TeX/Perl/Python/FreeCiv/Red Hat/..." – wizzwizz4 Nov 25 '17 at 10:07

Use the term "GNU/Linux"

This would kill two birds with one stone. This would not only remove ambiguity, but also help make users aware that GNU/Linux means the same as what they often call "Linux", and all the reasons listed here.

  • if "linux" is ambigous I'd rather use or re-tag as ubuntu, redhat, suse, whateverux ... – Archemar Oct 11 '16 at 13:05
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    @Archemar Why would you re-tag as ubuntu or redhat? Afaik those tags are for questions specific to those distributions, not questions about the GNU software talking to other GNU software (which admittedly is what most (~20-30%) of the questions here are about!) – wizzwizz4 Oct 11 '16 at 22:04
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    In general, I agree that the term 'GNU/Linux' should be used, wherever possible. It's not just about avoiding confusion, but also about giving a fair share of the credit to the GNU Project, which is responsible for a significant portion of the software used in these operating systems. – Time4Tea Nov 4 '17 at 19:58

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