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Unix Dweeb

How to speak Linux

May 15, 20186 mins
LinuxRed HatUbuntu

We might all agree on the command line, but start talking about Linux, and we might find that the rules of how to pronounce the names of Unix commands are not universal.

I didn’t even stop to imagine that people pronounced Linux commands differently until many years ago when I heard a co-worker use the word “vie” (as in “The teams will vie for the title”) for what I’d always pronounced “vee I.” It was a moment I’ll never forget.

Our homogenous and somewhat rebellious community of Unix/Linux advocates seemed to have descended into dialects — not just preferences for Solaris or Red Hat or Debian or some other variant (fewer back in those days than we have today), but different ways of referring to the commands we knew and used every day.

The “problem” has a number of causes. For one thing, our beloved man pages don’t include pronunciation guidelines like dictionaries do. For another, Unix commands evolved with a number of different pronunciation rules.

The names of some commands (like “cat”) were derived from words (like “concatenate”) and were pronounced as if they were words, too (some actually are). Others derived from phrases like “cpio,” which pull together the idea of copying (cp) and I/O. Others are simply abbreviations, such as “cd” for “change directory.” And then we have tools like “awk” that go in an entirely different direction by being named for the surnames of its creators (Alfred Aho, Peter Weinberger, and Brian Kernighan). No wonder there are no consistent rules for how to pronounce commands!

Some commands are basically pronounced as if we are spelling them out loud — like “el es” for ls and “pee double-u dee” for pwd, while others are read like “chown” (rhyming with “clown”) as if they are words. And since many Linux users might first be exposed to the Linx command line on some old PC that they decided to put to better use, they may never hear other people saying Linux commands out loud. So, in today’s post, I’m going to explain how I pronounce Linux commands and how I’ve heard some others going in different directions.

We’ll start with the easy stuff. Several Linux commands are simply words and, at least for English speakers, just get pronounced like the words when people use them in conversation.

Linux commands that are words

These Unix/Linux commands are also common words and should be pronounced as expected.

alias	apropos	apt	cat	echo	eval	exec	expect		export	find
for	gawk	less	locate	man	more	ping	shutdown	snort	sort
tar	top	touch	while	who	zip 

Linux commands pronounced as if they are words

A number of other commands are pronounced as if they were words:

awk		beginning of “awkward”
chmod		sh+mod or ch+mod (one syllable)
chown		ch+own (rhymes with "clown") or ch+own (rhymes with "own")
cron		beginning of “chronology”
grep 		similar to “grope”, but with a soft “e” (as in “end”)
ifconfig	if+config (beginning of “configure”) but some say "eye eff config"
ifdown		if+down
ifup		if+up
netstat		net+stat
passwd		pronounced as if spelled “password”
perl		pronounced like “pearl”
sed		pronounced like "said"
sudo		pronounced like "pseudo” (doesn’t rhyme with “voodoo”) or "soo doo"
                (rhyming with "voodoo")
traceroute	pronounced like the word “trace” followed by the word “route”
uniq 		pronounced like "unique”
vim		rhymes with “gym” (I’ve never heard it pronounced “vee eye em”
whoami	        pronounced like the question “Who am I?”

Linux commands that are spelled out

In my experience, all of these commands are simply spelled out. People say “see dee” for cd and “pee es” for ps, etc.

cd	cp	cpio	dd	df	du	env	ln
ls	ps	pwd	ssh	tr	ufw	w	wc

Anyone who says “piss” for ps or “turr” for tr is bound to get some funny looks.

Linux commands that are both read and spelled out

Other commands include words but also contain some extra letters that are generally spelled out.

emacs		pronounced “ee max”
gzip		pronounced “gee zip” (not "gee zee ipp")
mysql		pronounced “my es queue el”
nslookup	pronounced “en es lookup”
rsync		pronounced “are sync”
sdiff		pronounced “es diff”
slocate		pronounced “es locate”
xtop		pronounced “ex top”
uname		pronounced “you name”
vmstat		pronounced “vee em stat”
wget		pronounced “double you get”
xargs		pronounced “ex args”

Breaking the rules

It gets more interesting in some cases when, like my old coworker with her “vie” pronunciation for vi, people vary from these general pronunciations. I can only imagine what the commands sound like when pronounced in languages that have very different pronunciation rules.

Probably the command with the most variations in how it’s pronounced is the fsck command. Part of the reason may be its similarity to a common English curse word. I’ve always pronounced it as if I were spelling it — “ef es see kay.” Others, however, say “ef es check,” “fiss check,” or even “ef suck.”

And it’s not just commands

There many directories and files on Unix and Linux systems that also get pronounced in multiple ways. One that comes to mind is /etc. While I’ve always said “etsy,” some say “etcetera” or “ee tee see.” In addition, I’ve referred to the fstab file as “ef es tab” though I’ve heard it called “ef stab.” Some say “lib” (first syllable of “liberty”) for the lib directory while others insist it should be “libe” (first syllable in “library”). One reader said he once heard someone call CLI “cly” (first syllable in “climate”).

Another, and potentially unexpected, pronunciation issue for Linux is how people say the word “Linux” itself. While most people say the “Li” in Linux as they do the “li” in “little,” there are some who insist on saying “Linux” as in “Lye nux.” The reason is clear once you reflect on the fact that Linux was named after its creator and historically principal developer, Linus (pronounced “Line Us”) Torvalds.

And, of course, we’ve probably all heard an occasional person referring to a router as a “rooter” — the old “rowt” vs “root” argument that comes into play when we try to drive across the country.

There are probably many others, and I’d love to hear some of your favorite mispronunciation stories.

Unix Dweeb

Sandra Henry-Stocker has been administering Unix systems for more than 30 years. She describes herself as "USL" (Unix as a second language) but remembers enough English to write books and buy groceries. She lives in the mountains in Virginia where, when not working with or writing about Unix, she's chasing the bears away from her bird feeders.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of Sandra Henry-Stocker and do not necessarily represent those of IDG Communications, Inc., its parent, subsidiary or affiliated companies.

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