Linux jargon and abbreviations explained


When you come from the Mac or Windows to the Linux world, you often bump into terms or abbreviations that are less than self-explanatory. It takes a bit of time to get familiar with the jargon. To make it a bit easier, I have made a list of common terms with short explanations. I will add new terms to this list from time to time.

Many of the terms in the list are things you do not necessarily have to concern yourself with, but it might be nice to know for instance what a display manager is even if you probably never will install another one than the one that came by default with the distro you use. I intend this list to be a place to go to look up words, more than a list of things you absolutely have to know to be able to use Linux. Most things just work on Linux, but if you want to converse with Linux neck-beards this list might be useful. If you discover a mistake in the list, please let me know in the comments, and I’ll correct it.

  • Bash shell or Bourne Again Shell is a set of CLI tools for interacting with the computer through a terminal or console window. The bash shell is the standard Linux CLI interface, but it is possible to switch to fsh or tsh or other shells that provide slightly different tools. Bash is also the standard shell on Mac OS X.
  • Budgie is a desktop environment originally made for the Solus project. The earlier versions were based on GTK+, but the newer versions are based on Qt.
  • Cinnamon. Cinnamon is a desktop environment built with the GTK+ toolkit. It uses the traditional Windows layout with a panel at the bottom of the screen and many former Windows users find it very intuitive. It also looks polished and modern.
  • CLI or Command Line Interface. A command line interface is the sort of interface you use when typing commands into a terminal window. If you do not have a desktop environment or window manager installed, for instance on a machine you use as a server, then your only way of communicating your commands to the computer would be through the use of a CLI.
  • Dependencies. Dependencies are packages (software) that are needed by other packages. The package manager takes care of installing dependencies when you install a package, but if you build a package yourself from source code, you might have to deal with dependencies.
  • A DE or Desktop Environment is a collection of programs that handle how the graphical environment looks and feels. The DE usually comes with a built in Window Manager that draws the window decorations, a desktop manager that handles log in, a compositor that adds shadows and visual 3D effects to the windows, a file manager to manage files, a control panel or system settings app which again has different programs for managing different aspects of the user experience, some panel applets, some background pictures etc. Most DEs are based on either the GTK+ (version 2 or 3) or the Qt frameworks, but there are also a few that are not, like GNUStep and CDE.
  • Daemon. A daemon is an older term for a program that is running in the background. When using Systemd, these background programs are called Units.
  • Display manager. A Display Manager is a program that shows the window where you can log in to your Linux system and where you can choose between different users and installed desktop environments and window managers. The different desktop environments come with different default display managers, but they are interchangeable, so even if you got GDM with your DE, you might use LightDM instead if you like.
  • Distro or Distribution. Linux is not like Windows or Mac OS where there is only one current version. Linux is just the kernel, the part that makes the hardware function. To get any usefulness out of it, other tools like the GNU command line tools, a package manager, a desktop Environment and some programs are added. There are many different commercial and non-profit organizations that undertakes such projects with different aims. Some want to make a well designed desktop experience, others give you a server with long term stability, others make a system well suited for low end hardware… Each of these projects are called Linux distributions since they distribute Linux and other software to their users.
  • Distro hopping is to jump from distro to distro over a relatively short period of time. People often distro hop when they want to explore more of the Linux landscape and find a different distro that they might enjoy to use long term, maybe as a result of being dissatisfied with their current distro.
  • E19 or Enlightenment is a desktop environment in version 0.19. It is lightweight and based on a toolkit called EFL. It is one of the older desktop environments, but it also looks very modern and is quite customisable.
  • File Manager. A file manager corresponds to the Finder in Mac terms or the File Explorer on Windows. It is the program you use to manage your files. Usually, you would use the one that comes with your desktop environment, but it is possible to install one from another desktop environment if you prefer it.
  • FOSS or Free and Open Source Software (sometimes FLOSS, Free Libre Open Source Software). FOSS is software that is either free software or open source. The term is used to include both free software, as defined by the free software foundation, and open source software, as defined by the open source initiative. Since all free software is also open source and a lot of open source software is also free software, people that want to include both types of software often use the term FOSS. Sometimes Libre is included since some thinks it is a clearer adjective than Free when the meaning is that the software comes with freedom, not free of monetary cost.
  • Free Software is software that gives the user the freedom to read the source code for a program and change it to suit her needs as long as she contributes the changes back to the project that makes the software. It also gives the user the freedom to fork a project which means to make a new project based on the software of the other project. This is done in cases where some users feel that a project is going in a direction they are not happy with. Free Software must always be distributed with source code to make it possible for people to have these freedoms. These freedoms are enforced by the use of a set of software licences by the free software foundation called the GPL and the LGPL, usually in version 2 or 3. Nobody has the copyright of the code that makes up free software and that is why people sometimes use the term copylefted as a synonym for free software. The brilliant thing with free software is that users get to influence how their software works and companies, projects and individuals can all contribute toward common goals and share the fruits of their work instead of fight each other in the market place. The free in free software denotes freedom, not price. Some free software is sold by companies for a price, while most of it is free of charge. The definition of free software was made by the Free Software Foundation. Read more about free software on the Free Software Foundation Europe’s website.
  • Gnome. Gnome is a project that makes the GTK+ toolkit and the Gnome desktop environment. From version 3, Gnome has been focused on refining the user experience and many Linux users consider Gnome to be somewhat Mac-like. Gnome also supports extensions that can enhance the otherwise quite minimalistic user interface.
  • GTK, GTK+ or Gnome Toolkit is a toolkit for graphical programs made by the Gnome desktop environment, but also used in other DEs like MATE, LXDE, XFCE, Cinnamon, older versions of Budgie etc. A lot of programs also use this toolkit for their graphical user interface. GTK 3 is the present version of the toolkit, while GTK2 was the previous version.
  • GUI or Graphical User Interface. While not a Linux specific term, it is often used to denote the graphical user interface, ie, the visual, on-screen parts of software as opposed to CLI interfaces.
  • LXDE or Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment is a lightweight desktop environment using the GTK+2 toolkit. It is the most lightweight desktop environment that still has most of the features one would expect. It runs well on low end and older hardware and is very fast on modern hardware. It is also quite customisable. Even if the default look is a bit bland, it can be made to look really good with the right themes and settings.
  • Open Source Software is software that gives the user the freedom to use a program as one would like and change the software to one’s needs. Unlike Free Software, there is no demand that the changes are shared with the project that made the software in the first place. Open Source Software is defined by the Open Source Initiative, a group that split off from the Free Software Foundation in the past to spread their own ideals. The most used open source software licences are the MIT licence, the Apache licence and the BSD licence. Read more about open source software on the Open Source Initiative’s website.
  • MATE is a desktop environment that is a fork of Gnome2 that has kept its look and feel. The default layout is typically with one panel on top of the screen and another panel at the bottom of the screen and with three menus on the top panel: Applications, Places and System. MATE is a lightweight desktop environment that runs well on older and low end hardware and makes newer hardware really fly.
  • Mir
  • Panel. A panel is the part of a desktop environment that usually runs along one side of the desktop and contains things like menus, launchers, applets, clocks, a battery indicator, volume controls, WIFI and Bluetooth applets and so forth. It is also possible to install panels together with Window Managers. The difference between a dock and a panel is not very clear, and many panels can be used as docks to launch programs as well as panels with menus and applets.
  • Package or Software Package. A package is a building block used in a program. Usually, programs are made up of one main package that is dependent on other packages to function. These other packages are called dependencies and are often libraries of common functions in different programming languages.
  • Package manager. A package manager manages which packages to install and remove for the user. It automatically takes care of installing the right dependencies and it is also used to update your system to the latest software and to upgrade to a new version. Apt is the package manager used in Ubuntu and Debian.
  • Plasma, KDE’s Plasma. Plasma is a desktop environment from the KDE project. The goal is to make a desktop with a good default setup and with lots of customisability. A good way to experience Plasma in its purest form it to use KDE Neon, which ships the newest Plasma on top of Ubuntu LTS.
  • Qt is a toolkit for graphical programs. It was developed by Troll tech, then sold to Nokia, and is now developed by a community project. Qt is used in many Linux desktop environments like KDE’s Plasma, LXQt, Unity 8, Budgie (newer versions) and Lumina. It is also used for the graphical user interface of many programs.
  • Repo, Repository or Software Repository. A repository is a place where your machine can fetch software packages. Most distros have more than one of these. As an example, we can take a look at Ubuntu. The Ubuntu project maintains the Main, Universe, Restricted and Multiverse repositories. Each repository has a specific category of software. Main contains free and open source software maintained by Cannonical, the company behind Ubuntu. Universe contains free and open source software maintained by the Ubuntu community. Restricted contains proprietary (non-free) drivers for hardware. Multi-verse contains software restricted by copyright. Other distributions have different schemes of repos names and what goes into each.
  • Systemd is software used to start other programs when your machine starts and handle programs running in the background. It is used in most Linux distros, but not all.
  • Unit. A Unit is a program running in the background. A Unit what people using systemd would call what was traditionally called a daemon. Units can be enabled, disabled, started and stopped with the systemctl command.
  • Unity. Unity is the desktop environment used by Ubuntu from version 11.04 to version 16.10. The present version is called Unity 7 and is based on the GTK+ toolkit. A newer version which was developed first for Ubuntu touch for phones and tablets is called Unity 8 and is based on the Qt toolkit. It ran fine on tablets and phones with the Mir window server, but was never implemented on the desktop version of Ubuntu. From version 17.04, Ubuntu has used the Gnome desktop environment.
  • Unix time, Unix epoch, POSIX time. This is how time is measured by your computer. Instead of counting the time and the date, Unix time counts the number of seconds since 00:00:00 Coordinated Universal Time, Thursday, 1 January 1970. To get a date and a time, the time has to be converted from seconds since the start of the Unix Epoch.
  • WM or Window Manager. A Window Manager is the part of a desktop environment that draws the windows, enforces icon themes, widget (window border) themes and pointer themes and settings for fonts and size in the window borders and menus of graphical programs. If you use a desktop environment, it comes with a window manager by default, but it is also possible to switch to another if you prefer other sets of features. Window Managers can also be used alone and some are specifically made for this use case. The use of Window Managers without full desktop environments is especially common among people that work a lot in terminal windows, such as programmers and system administrators.
  • XFCE is a desktop environment that is mid-weight. It uses the GTK+ toolkit and by default has one panel on top of the screen. The Whisker menu has some nice customisability options and built in search.
  • X11
  • Wayland

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