What’s in a name? Gnubuntu or Ubuntu?

Two of my recent were about names, What’s in a name? GNU, Linux, or GNU/Linux? and What’s in a Name? Linux, Ubuntu, Linux Ubuntu, or Ubuntu Linux?

Thinking about the posts and the names they discuss reminded me of an anecdote about picking the topic of a Ph.D. dissertation. Robert Sedgewick was a doctoral student at Stanford and had the great good fortune to have the legendary Prof. Don Knuth as his thesis advisor. As I recall it, as they were searching for a topic Knuth said, “Quicksort is an elegant algorithm. Take a look at it. There must be a thesis in there somewhere.”

Indeed there was, R. Sedgewick. Quicksort. PhD thesis, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, May 1975. Stanford Computer Science Report STAN-CS-75-492. (I once owned a copy of Sedgewick’s “Data Structures” that included a great section on Quicksort. He is currently at Princeton’s Dept. of Computer Science. You can learn more about him on the Robert Sedgewick home page.)

Quicksort is indeed an elegant algorithm, and I plan to attempt a post about it down the line.

I asked myself, is there another name of interest within the names to be found in these two posts?

So I wrote down the names and eliminated the duplicates, leaving:

  • GNU
  • Linux
  • GNU/Linux
  • Ubuntu

What did I miss? How about:

  • GNU Ubuntu
  • GNU/Ubuntu
  • GNUbuntu

Yikes! This could be trouble. Since Ubuntu is just a Linux distribution would the GNU folks try to claim it in the same way they have claimed “Linux” itself as their own? (See the last sentence in this e-mail exchange.) Was another debate that might go on for a decade or more looming on the horizon?

So off to the web I went, searching for “GNU/Ubuntu” and “GNUbuntu.”

With a great sigh of relief I learned that this question has already been asked and answered. Moreover, the answer only increased my admiration for the Ubuntu team.

See Gnubuntu: a completely free Ubuntu and Gnubuntu. The latter is short and sweet. Here it is:

ShuttleWorth: We’ve registered “gnubuntu.org” for an ideologically-pure derivative.

Have had some discussion with RMS about this. He’s supportive of the idea but not the name… we may go ahead with the name as it is, since I think it perfectly captures the link to both projects. The idea would be to setup that derivative to include only stuff that’s FSF-blessed (even if the FSF doesn’t bless the name of the aggregation).

If anyone is keen to work on that, please let me know. It would require some knowledge of the core tools of managing a derivative. The Ututo guys may or may not be interested in helping out – they already work on a core that is FSF-blessed, so this might save them a lot of work.

Not only are the Ubuntu folks good coders, they also had the business sense to trademark Ubuntu, so only they can decide just how the word “Ubuntu” can be used, at least when it comes to computer software.


I’ve also noticed several comments on the posts about names that came close to calling me names, though I won’t name the names. This suggests that names do matter, else why would people bother to comment on this topic?

By the way, as I was drafting this post, I recalled that “Linux” is a trademark owned by Linus Torvalds. Linus could end the “GNU/Linux” fiasco anytime he wants, but has so far not done so, and I added a postscript about this to the “GNU/Linux” post.

Sometimes you can find other words within a word, including within the word “name” itself, for example:

Do not waste an em on me.
Do not call me a name, or say I am a bad man.
Do not be mean.

I am what I am. I mean it.


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