What's in an open source name?

Ever wonder where the names of your favorite open source projects or programming languages came from? Get the origin stories behind popular tech nomenclature from A to Z.
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GNOME, Java, Jupyter, Python. If your friends or family members have ever eavesdropped on your work conversations, they might think you've made a career in Renaissance folklore, coffee roasting, astronomy, or zoology. Where did the names of these open source technologies come from? We asked our writer community for input and rounded up some of our favorite tech name origin stories.

Ansible

The name "Ansible" is lifted directly from science fiction. Ursula Le Guin's book Rocannon's World had devices allowing instantaneous (faster than light) communication called ansibles (derived, apparently, from the word "answerable"). Ansibles became a staple of science fiction, including in Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game (which later became a popular film), where the device controlled many remote space ships. This seemed to be a good model for software that controls distributed machines, so Michael DeHaan (creator and founder of Ansible) borrowed the name.

Apache

Apache is an open source web server that was originally released in 1995. Its name is not related to the famous Native American tribe; it instead refers to the repeated patches to its original software code. Hence, "A-patchy server."

awk

"awk(1) Stands for Aho, Weinberger, Kernighan (authors)" —Michael Greenberg

Bash

"The original Unix shell, the Bourne shell, was named after its creator. At the time Bash was being developed, csh (pronounced 'seashell') was actually more popular for interactive user logins. The Bash project aimed to give new life to the Bourne shell by making it more suitable for interactive use, thus it was named the 'Bourne again shell,' a pun on 'born again.'" —Ken Gaillot

C

"In early days, Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie at AT&T found it interesting that you could use a higher-level programming language (instead of low-level and less-portable assembly programming) to write operating systems and tools. There was an early programming system called BCPL (Basic Combined Programming Language), and Thompson created a stripped-down version of BCPL called B. But B wasn't very flexible or fast. Ritchie then took the ideas of B and expanded it into a compiled language called C." —Jim Hall

dd

"I don't think you can publish such an article without mentioning dd. My nickname is Didi. Correctly pronounced, it sounds like 'dd.' I first learned Unix, and then Linux, in 1993 as a student. Then I went to the army, arrived to one of the very few sections in my unit that used Unix (Ultrix) (the rest were mainly VMS), and one of the people there said: 'So, you are a hacker, right? You think you know Unix? OK, so what's the reason for the name dd?' I had no idea and tried to guess: "Data duplicator?" So he said, 'I'll tell you the story of dd. dd is short for convert and copy (as anyone can still see today on the manpage), but since cc was already taken by the c compiler, it was named dd.' Only years later, I heard the true story about JCL's data definition and the non-uniform, semi-joking syntax for the Unix dd command somewhat being based on it." —Yedidyah Bar David

Emacs

The classic anti-vi editor, the true etymology of the name is unremarkable, in that it derives from "Editing MACroS." Being an object of great religious opprobrium and worship it has, however, attracted many spoof bacronyms such as "Escape Meta Alt Control Shift" (to spoof its heavy reliance on keystrokes), "Eight Megabytes And Constantly Swapping" (from when that was a lot of memory), "Eventually malloc()s All Computer Storage," and "EMACS Makes A Computer Slow." —Adapted from the Jargon File/Hacker's Dictionary

Enarx

Enarx is a new project in the confidential computing space. One of the project's design principles was that it should be "fungible." so an initial name was "psilocybin" (the famed magic mushroom). The general feeling was that manager types would probably be resistant, so new names were considered. The project's two founders, Mike Bursell and Nathaniel McCallum, are both ancient language geeks, so they considered lots of different ideas, including тайна (Tayna—Russian for secret or mystery—although Russian, admittedly, is not ancient, but hey), crypticon (total bastardization of Greek), cryptidion (Greek for small secret place), arcanus (Latin masculine adjective for secret), arcanum (Latin neuter adjective for secret), and ærn (Anglo-Saxon for place, secret place, closet, habitation, house, or cottage). In the end, for various reasons, including the availability of domains and GitHub project names, they settled on enarx, a combination of two Latin roots: en- (meaning within) and -arx (meaning citadel, stronghold, or fortress).

GIMP

Where would we be without GIMP? The GNU Image Manipulation Project has been an open source staple for many years. Wikipedia states, "In 1995, Spencer Kimball and Peter Mattis began developing GIMP as a semester-long project at the University of California, Berkeley, for the eXperimental Computing Facility."

GNOME

Have you ever wondered why GNOME is called GNOME? According to Wikipedia, GNOME was originally an acronym that represented the "GNU Network Object Model Environment." Now that name no longer represents the project and has been dropped, but the name has stayed. GNOME 3 is the default desktop environment for Fedora, Red Hat Enterprise, Ubuntu, Debian, SUSE Linux Enterprise, and more.

Java

Can you imagine this programming language being named anything else? Java was originally called Oak, but alas, the legal team at Sun Microsystems vetoed that name due to its existing trademark. So it was back to the drawing board for the development team. Legend has it that a massive brainstorm was held by the language's working group in January 1995. Lots of other names were tossed around including Silk, DNA, WebDancer, and so on. The team did not want the new name to have anything to do with the overused terms, "web" or "net." Instead, they were searching for something more dynamic, fun, and easy to remember. Java met the requirements and miraculously, the team agreed!

Jupyter

Many of today's data scientists and students use Jupyter notebooks in their work. The name Jupyter is an amalgamation of three open source computer languages that are used in the notebooks and prominent in data science: Julia, Python, and R.

Kubernetes

Kubernetes is derived from the Greek word for helmsman. This etymology was corroborated in a 2015 Hacker News response by a Kubernetes project founder, Craig McLuckie. Wanting to stick with the nautical theme, he explained that the technology drives containers, much like a helmsman or pilot drives a container ship. Thus, Kubernetes was the chosen name. Many of us are still trying to get the pronunciation right (koo-bur-NET-eez), so K8s is an acceptable substitute. Interestingly, it shares its etymology with the English word "governor," so has that in common with the mechanical negative-feedback device on steam engines.

KDE

What about the K desktop? KDE originally represented the "Kool Desktop Environment." It was founded in 1996 by Matthias Ettrich. According to Wikipedia, the name was a play on the words Common Desktop Environment (CDE) on Unix.

Linux

Linux was named for its inventor, Linus Torvalds. Linus originally wanted to name his creation "Freax" as he thought that naming the creation after himself was too egotistical. According to Wikipedia, "Ari Lemmke, Torvalds' coworker at the Helsinki University of Technology, who was one of the volunteer administrators for the FTP server at the time, did not think that 'Freax' was a good name. So, he named the project 'Linux' on the server without consulting Torvalds."

Following are some of the most popular Linux distributions.

CentOS

CentOS is an acronym for Community Enterprise Operating System. It contains the upstream packages from Red Hat Enterprise Linux.

Debian

Debian Linux, founded in September 1993, is a portmanteau of its founder, Ian Murdock, and his then-girlfriend Debra Lynn.

RHEL

Red Hat Linux got its name from its founder Marc Ewing, who wore a red Cornell University fedora given to him by his grandfather. Red Hat was founded on March 26, 1993. Fedora Linux began as a volunteer project to provide extra software for the Red Hat distribution and got its name from Red Hat's "Shadowman" logo.

Ubuntu

Ubuntu aims to share open source widely and is named after the African philosophy of ubuntu, which can be translated as "humanity to others" or "I am what I am because of who we all are."

Moodle

The open source learning platform Moodle is an acronym for "modular object-oriented dynamic learning environment." Moodle continues to be a leading platform for e-learning. There are nearly 104,000 registered Moodle sites worldwide.

Two other popular open source content management systems are Drupal and Joomla. Drupal's name comes from the Dutch word for "druppel" which means "drop." Joomla is an anglicized spelling of the Swahili word "jumla," which means "all together" in Arabic, Urdu, and other languages, according to Wikipedia.

Mozilla

Mozilla is an open source software community founded in 1998. According to its website, "The Mozilla project was created in 1998 with the release of the Netscape browser suite source code. It was intended to harness the creative power of thousands of programmers on the internet and fuel unprecedented levels of innovation in the browser market." The name was a portmanteau of Mosaic and Godzilla.

Nginx

"Many tech people try to be cool and say it 'n' 'g' 'n' 'x'. Few actually did the basic actions of researching a bit more to find out very quickly that the name is actually supposed to be said as 'EngineX,' in reference to the powerful web server, like an engine." —Jean Sebastien Tougne

Perl

Perl's founder Larry Wall originally named his project "Pearl." According to Wikipedia, Wall wanted to give the language a short name with positive connotations. Wall discovered the existing PEARL programming language before Perl's official release and changed the spelling of the name.

Piet and Mondrian

"There are two programming language named after the artist Piet Mondrian. One is called 'Piet' and the other 'Mondrian.' [David Morgan-Mar writes]: 'Piet is a programming language in which programs look like abstract paintings. The language is named after Piet Mondrian, who pioneered the field of geometric abstract art. I would have liked to call the language Mondrian, but someone beat me to it with a rather mundane-looking scripting language. Oh well, we can't all be esoteric language writers, I suppose.'" —Yuval Lifshitz

Python

The Python programming language received its unique name from its creator, Guido Van Rossum, who was a fan of the comedy group Monty Python.

Raspberry Pi

Known for its tiny-but-mighty capabilities and wallet-friendly price tag, the Raspberry Pi is a favorite in the open source community. But where did its endearing (and yummy) name come from? In the '70s and '80s, it was a popular trend to name computers after fruit. Apple, Tangerine, Apricot... anyone getting hungry? According to a 2012 interview with founder Eben Upton, the name "Raspberry Pi" is a nod to that trend. Raspberries are also tiny in size, yet mighty in flavor. The "Pi" in the name alludes to the fact that, originally, the computer could only run Python.

Samba

Server Message Block for sharing Windows files on Linux.

ScummVM

ScummVM (Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion Virtual Machine) is a program that makes it possible to run some classic computer adventure games on a modern computer. Originally, it was designed to play LucasArts adventure games that were built using SCUMM, which was originally used to develop Maniac Mansion before being used to develop most of LucasArts's other adventure games. Currently, ScummVM supports a large number of game engines, including Sierra Online's AGI and SCI, but still retains the name ScummVM. A related project, ResidualVM, got its name because it covers the "residual" LucasArts adventure games not covered by ScummVM. The LucasArts games covered by ResidualVM were developed using GrimE (Grim Engine), which was first used to develop Grim Fandango, so the ResidualVM name is a double pun.

SQL

"You may know [SQL] stands for Structured Query Language, but do you know why it's often pronounced 'sequel'? It was created as a follow-up (i.e. sequel) to the original 'QUEL' (QUEry Language)." —Ken Gaillot

XFCE

XFCE is a popular desktop founded by Olivier Fourdan. It began as an alternative to CDE in 1996 and its name was originally an acronym for XForms Common Environment.

Zsh

Zsh is an interactive login shell. In 1990, the first version of the shell was written by Princeton student Paul Falstad. He named it after seeing the login ID of Zhong Sha (zsh), then a teaching assistant at Princeton, and thought that it sounded like a good name for a shell.

There are many more projects and names that we have not included in this list. Be sure to share your favorites in the comments.

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Lauren is the managing editor for Opensource.com. When she's not organizing the editorial calendar or digging into the data, she can be found going on adventures with her family and German shepherd rescue dog, Quailford. She is passionate about spreading awareness of how open source technology and principles can be applied to areas outside the tech industry such as education and government.
Educator, entrepreneur, open source advocate, life long learner, Python teacher. M.A. in Educational Psychology, MSED in Educational Leadership, Linux system administrator, Follow me at @Don_Watkins .
Joshua Allen Holm
Opensource.com Correspondent
I've been in and around Open Source since around 1997, and have been running (GNU) Linux as my main desktop at home and work since then: not always easy...  I'm a security bod and architect, co-founder of the Enarx project, and am currently CEO of a start-up in the Confi

15 Comments

Back in the Unix days, dd was device to device copy, and AFAIK still is.

I'll add another one:

FreeDOS is so named because it is a free version of the DOS operating system. It was first named PD-DOS because it originally was made up of a lot of Public Domain utilities. Also, PD-DOS was a play on other DOS names, like Microsoft's MS-DOS and Digital Research's DR-DOS and IBM's PC-DOS.

The name DOS means Disk Operating System. As in floppy disks, originally of the 5 1/4" 360 kilobytes variety.

Zope is a free and open source web application server written in the object-oriented programming language “Python”.

I was reminded the other day of the text manipulation utilities unix2dos and dos2unix, which I find funny because they're still useful even though the two particular operating systems it references have been almost entirely superseded. (No offense meant, Jim, I still love FreeDOS!)

I've also always giggled a little bit at the fsck utility.

I have heard a version of the story about PERL and from the little bit I know about Larry Wall it has the ring of truth, but I also heard that there is another backronym option: Practical Extraction and Reporting Language or as stated in the Wikipedia article, Larry Wall's version: Pathologically Eclectic Rubbish Lister.

Here's another I know of: FRED (friendly editor) - a version of QED that ran on Honeywell mainframes in the 70's and 80's. It is somewhat reminiscent of vi (and vim) and Ex in their earlier incarnations

Aaargh FRED wasn't open source! I remember lobbying our IT department manager to purchase it. I had learned it from my university days on a Unix terminal. He eventually approved it and for a while I was in editor heaven.

ClickHouse (open-source analytical database management system) is named by joining "clickstream" and "data warehouse". Because it was initially developed for clickstream data processing.

I'm a bit of a fan of Monty Python, so I really enjoyed learning to program in Python :)

Python's documentation and examples are full of references to the show (spam and eggs being the most prominent, I presume).

And also is its community: there's the Eric IDE and Python's built-in IDE called IDLE, bot named after Monty Python's Eric Idle.

But I think the one the I like the most is the GNU Hurd, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GNU_Hurd:

'It's time [to] explain the meaning of "Hurd". "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.

— Thomas (then Michael) Bushnell'

Ok, Here are couple I found over the years.

dd is disk dump or disk destroyer, depending.
XFCE is eXtra Fine Computing Environment.

I am no longer able to find the internet sources for these, but hey, they are good anyway. ;-)

what does daemon mean?

It’s odd, that GNU is mentioned several times throughout the article but its name never explained. It is too well-known to explain? I’m afraid, it’s not anymore among younger generations, unfortunately.

And I nominate it for a clear winner of ‘bizarre name’ contest: it’s a name of a animal (like Python), wordplay acronym (like KDE) and how-the-hell-to-pronounce-it-word (like SQL) rolled into one.

Anyway, nobody will explain it better than Dr. Richard Stallman himself, so here is an excerpt from his talk [0]:

| So all we had to do to start work was find a name for the system. Now, we hackers always look for a funny or naughty name for a program, because thinking of people being amused by the name is half the fun of writing the program. [Laughter] And we had a tradition of recursive acronyms, to say that the program that you're writing is similar to some existing program. You can give it a recursive acronym name which says: this one's not the other. So, for instance, there were many Tico text editors in the '60's and '70's, and they were generally called something-or-other Tico. Then one clever hacker called his Tint, for Tint Is Not Tico -- the first recursive acronym. In 1975, I developed the first Emacs text editor, and there were many imitations of Emacs, and a lot of them were called something-or-other Emacs, but one was called Fine, for Fine Is Not Emacs, and there was Sine, for Sine Is Not Emacs, and Eine for Eine Is Not Emacs, and MINCE for Mince Is Not Complete Emacs. [Laughter] That was a stripped down imitation. And then, Eine was almost completely rewritten, and the new version was called Zwei, for Zwei Was Eine Initially. [Laughter]
|
| So I looked for a recursive acronym for Something is not UNIX. And I tried all 26 letters, and discovered that none of them was a word. [Laughter] Hmm, try another way. I made a contraction. That way I could have a three-letter acronym, for Something's not UNIX. And I tried letters, and I came across the word "GNU" -- the word "GNU" is the funniest word in the English language. [Laughter] That was it. Of course, the reason it's funny is that according to the dictionary, it's pronounced "new". You see? And so that's why people use it for a lot of wordplay. Let me tell you, this is the name of an animal that lives in Africa. And the African pronunciation had a click sound in it. [Laughter] Maybe still does. And so, the European colonists, when they got there, they didn't bother learning to say this click sound. So they just left it out, and they wrote a "G" which meant "there's another sound that's supposed to be here which we are not pronouncing." [Laughter] So, tonight I'm leaving for South Africa, and I have begged them, I hope they're going to find somebody who can teach me to pronounce click sounds, [Laughter] so that I'll know how to pronounce GNU the correct way, when it's the animal.
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| But, when it's the name of our system, the correct pronunciation is "guh-NEW" -- pronounce the hard "G". If you talk about the "new" operating system, you'll get people very confused, because we've been working on it for 17 years now, so it is not new any more. [Laughter] But it still is, and always will be, GNU -- no matter how many people call it Linux by mistake. [Laughter]

[0] https://www.gnu.org/philosophy/rms-nyu-2001-transcript.txt

Nice one! As you can probably tell, this list doesn't cover *all* names, just some of them. Maybe the GNU project will make it into a followup article. We have another article about a specific project name (POSIX), so yet another is not out of the question.

In reply to by Dmitry

Koku! But it is a cute one :D

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