How 11 open source projects got their names

Python, Raspberry Pi, and Red Hat to name a few.
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What is the meaning of "life"?

Well, it's the condition that distinguishes animals and plants from inorganic matter, of course. So, what is the meaning of "open source life"? Leo Babauta, writing for LifeHack, says:

"It can apply to anything in life, any area where information is currently in the hands of few instead of many, any area where a few people control the production and distribution and improvement of a product or service or entity."

Phew! Now that we have that figured out, what is the meaning of "Kubernetes"? Or, "Arduino"?

Like many well-known brand names we take for granted, such as "Kleenex" or "Pepsi," the open source world has its own unique collection of strange names that meant something to someone at some time, but that we simply accept (or mispronounce) without knowing their true origins.

Let's take a look at the etymology of 11 such open source names.

Arduino

"So, two open source developers walk into a bar..." Arduino derives its name from one of co-founder Massimo Banzi's favorite bars in Ivrea, Italy, where the founders of this "hardware and software ecosystem" used to meet. The bar was named for Arduin of Ivrea, who was king of Italy a bit more than 1,000 years ago.

Debian

First introduced in 1993 by Ian Murdock, Debian was one of the first operating systems based on the Linux kernel. First released as the "Debian Linux Release," Debian's name is a portmanteau (a word created by combing two other words, such as "[mo]dulator [dem]odulator"—so that's what "modem" means!). By combining the first name of Murdock's then-girlfriend, Debra Lynn and his own name, Ian, they formed "Debian."

Kubernetes

The open source system for automating deployment, scaling, and management of containerized applications, also called "K8s," gets its moniker from the Greek for "helmsman" or "pilot." Kubernetes traces its lineage to Google's Borg system and was originally codenamed "Project Seven," a reference to Star Trek Voyager's previously assimilated Borg, Seven of Nine. The seven spokes in Kubernetes' logo—a helmsman's wheel—are a visual reference to Seven.

openSUSE

openSUSE gets its name from Germany. SUSE is an acronym for "Software und System-Entwicklung" or "software and system development." The "open" part was appended after Novell acquired SUSE in 2003 and when they opened distribution development to the community in 2005.

PHP

PHP started as a simple set of CGI binaries written in C for helping its creator, Rasmus Lerdorf, maintain his personal homepage, thus the project was abbreviated "PHP." This later became an acronym for what the project became—a hypertext preprocessor—so "PHP: hypertext preprocessor" became the new meaning of "PHP" (yes, a recursive backronym).

PostgreSQL

Originally just "postgres," PostgreSQL was created at the University of California-Berkeley by Michael Stonebraker in 1986 as a follow-up to the "Ingres" database system. Postgres was developed to break new ground in database concepts, such as object-relational technologies. Its pronunciation causes a lot of debate, as seen in this Reddit thread.

Python

When he began implementing the Python programming language, Guido van Rossum was a fan of Monty Python's Flying Circus. Van Rossum thought he needed a short name that was unique and slightly mysterious, so he settled on Python.

Raspberry Pi

Raspberry Pi co-founder Eben Upton explains: "Raspberry is a reference to a fruit-naming tradition in the old days of microcomputers," such as Tangerine Computer Systems, Apricot Computers, and Acorn. As the Raspberry Pi was intended to be a processor that booted into a Python shell, "Py" was added, but changed to "Pi" in reference to the mathematical constant.

Red Hat

Red Hat was founded out of a sewing room in Connecticut and a bachelor pad in Raleigh, N.C., by co-founders Bob Young and Marc Ewing. The "red hat" refers to a red Cornell University lacrosse cap, which Ewing wore at his job helping students in the computer lab at Carnegie Mellon. Students were told: "If you need help, look for the guy in the red hat."

Ubuntu

Ubuntu's About page explains the word's meaning: "Ubuntu is an ancient African word meaning 'humanity to others.'" It also means "I am what I am because of who we all are," and the operating system intends to bring "the spirit of Ubuntu to the world of computers and software." The word can be traced to the Nguni languages, part of the Bantu languages spoken in Southern African, and simply means "humanity."

Wikipedia

To get the answer to this one, let's turn to Wikipedia! In 1995, Howard G. "Ward" Cunningham developed WikiWikiWeb, "the simplest online database that could possibly work." The word "wiki" is Hawaiian and means "quick" and "pedia" means, ummm, "pedia."

Acronyms, portmanteaus, pubs, foreign words—these are just some examples of the etymology of open source labels. There are many others. What other strange and alien words have you encountered in the open source universe? Where do they come from? What do they mean? Let us know in the comments section below.

Thanks to Ben Nuttall, community manager for the Raspberry Pi Foundation, for providing definitions for PHP, Python, and Raspberry Pi.

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Jeff Macharyas is the Director of Marketing at Corning Community College in New York. He is a writer, graphic designer and communications director who has worked in publishing, higher education and project management for many years.

16 Comments

I always thought Ubuntu was a Swahili meaning "can't get Debian to work".

Nice read!

I have an extra one to add too, which has an interesting story actually. Drupal!
As stated on wikipedia:

The name Drupal represents an English rendering of the Dutch word druppel, which means "drop" (as in a water droplet). The name came from the now-defunct Drop.org Web site, whose code slowly evolved into Drupal. Dries Buytaert wanted to call the site "dorp" (Dutch for "village") for its community aspects, but mistyped it when checking the domain name and thought the error sounded better.

Thanks for the article. I knew some of these but not others and you've also clarified information on some that I did know. Naming is always interesting and sometimes the names are far removed from the purpose of an entity.

FWIW, php was originally php/fi for personal home page/forms {interface} (though I'm not positive about the "interface" part, thus the brackets).

The AWK language: named after its authors Aho, Weinberger, and Kernighan.

Probably common knowledge by now, but GNU: recursive acronym fo GNU's Not Unix

Also the GNU Hurd (https://www.gnu.org/software/hurd/hurd/what_is_the_gnu_hurd/origin_of_t…):

"Hurd stands for Hird of Unix-Replacing Daemons. And, then, Hird stands for Hurd of Interfaces Representing Depth.
We have here, to my knowledge, the first software to be named by a pair of mutually recursive acronyms."

This is really cool! I would like to add another one: SuiteCRM

SuiteCRM was forked from SugarCRM when they abandoned open source. Sugar is sweet, and Suite sounds like sweet. SuiteCRM brought the sweetness back to the community by keeping CRM open source.

I would add a couple to that... I think the list needs a reference or pointer to the story of how Linus's Unix became Linux. Linus himself didn't suggest it, and was actually against the idea when it was first suggested...
We could also use a recursive explanation of why GNU is not Unix.
We could maybe also have a retelling of the story of Linus and the Penguin that bit him, in Australia, and how that "feisty little character" became Tux, the universal icon for Linux.
There is also the GNU Image Manipulation Project, which gave us the GIMP Tool Kit.

We could also go back a bit further, and explain to the young about the success & popularity of JRR Tolkein's Lord of the Rings novels in the mid ~ late 60s, and how people developed Dungeons & Dragons (the board game) and how all the people who created Unix and worked on the early documentation, were D & D players, which is why ideas like parent & child processes and daemons and various others arrived, because the concepts came from Dungeons & Dragons. It was simply a fictitious mental universe that all the players were familiar with, it gave them a 'culture' and common reference frame.

The name one of the most popular open source desktop systems is QGIS. Recently it was called Quantum GIS, but nobody could explain why Quantum is there. The name now is QGIS and it is "supposed" Q is for Qt framework.

After reading this article I am sure that I will be thinking about Debra & Ian whenever I come across the word DEBIAN. :D

How could you forget the two meatballs over the plate. MySQL named after Monty's first daughter, My. MariaDB named after his second daughter, Gertrude (j/k, Maria).

Apache started beeng "a patched" version of NCSA http reference server.

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