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Key Takeaways

  • Many operating systems have X in their name to pay homage to Unix.
  • Unix was originally named Unics as a joke at Multics’ expense. No one involved can remember when it became Unix.
  • Linus Torvalds originally wanted Linux to be called Freax. He thought Linux was “too egotistical.”

Everyone knows Linus Torvalds developed Linux, and it’s plain to see that Linux is Linus with the S replaced with an X. But why an X, and who actually chose that name?

Before the X, There Was CS

There’s a very long list of operating systems that have X in their name, especially in the large set of operating systems classed as being Unix-like.

Operating systems such as IRIX, Xenix, AIX, and HP-UX spring to mind, but there are many more. Most of the commercial Unix-like operating systems have been certified against the Open Group’s Single UNIX Specification, and are allowed to call themselves a certified UNIX, written in uppercase.

Whether in uppercase or lowercase, if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Unix should feel very flattered indeed. Not only do the operating systems want to have an operational and functional Unix-ness about them, but they shoehorn an X into their name so that we know their lineage.

That begs the question, why did Unix use an X in the first place?

In the late 1960s, a team of developers from Bell Labs was involved in a multi-company project to produce a new time-sharing operating system. Along with MIT and General Electric, they were looking for ways to allow a mainframe computer to handle multiple active users at the same time.

The system was called Multics, standing for Multiplexed Information and Computer Service. Multiplexing is computer-speak for doing several things at once.

The management at Bell grew disillusioned with the Multics project and pulled out. Despite misgivings about some of the design decisions for Multics, one of the Bell team, Ken Thompson, decided to write an operating system that would run on much more modest hardware, and keep the best ideas from Multics. He was assisted by Dennis Ritchie.

Because it was originally intended to support a single user at a time, another member of the Bell team, Brian Kernighan, jokingly suggested calling it Unics, for Uniplexed Information and Computer Service. How and when it morphed to Unix, with the CS becoming X, no one recalls.

Meanwhile, the Multics project labored away until, in 1969, they produced a working operating system for the General Electrics GE 645 computer. Today, a collection of enthusiasts keep it alive, and you can download and run it on your own computer, on simulated hardware.

The Multics operating system running in a hardware simulator on a modern PC
Dave McKay/How-To Geek

Unix, of course, went on to change the world.

MINIX, the Unix Mini-Me

Before Unix eventually found commercial success, it was a major hit in academia. Because Unix was a new breed of operating system, university courses were devoted to its design and implementation, and Unix was used on university mainframes by the universities themselves.

Professor Andrew Tanenbaum, now retired, was the Professor Emeritus at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. Back in 1987, he developed a minimalist mini-Unix for educational purposes, that his students could examine, dissect, and tinker with. He called his operating system MINIX.

He co-authored a book called Operating Systems: Design and Implementation describing his operating system and containing the printed source code.

In 1990, Linus Torvalds, a Finnish student at the University of Helsinki, encountered MINIX, via Tanenbaum’s book, which was a required test for a Unix course he was taking.

He liked MINIX but thought there could be improvements, such as better handling of interrupts. He also didn’t like the MINIX license, which restricted its use to educational purposes only. Torvalds had a 386 PC running MINIX which gave him access to a Unix-like operating system and a compiler, which was all he needed to start work on his own Unix-like operating system.

This led to his famous email to a MINIX newsgroup on August 25, 1991, asking what people would like to see in a new MINIX lookalike. There’s no mention of a name for the new operating system in this email.

Professor Tanenbaum retired in 2014. MINIX version 3 is still available, although it no longer seems to be maintained.

MINIX running in a virtual computer on a modern PC
Dave McKay/How-To Geek

Linus Torvalds and Freax

In another announcement to the same newsgroup on October 5, 1991, Torvalds says that source files for version 0.02 of “this pet project of mine” are available in a directory on the ftp.funet.fi FTP server. The name of the directory was “/pub/OS/Linux.” But where did the name Linux come from?

In his book Just For Fun: The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary, Torvalds has this to say.

Privately, I called it Linux. Honest: I didn’t want to ever release it under the name Linux because it was too egotistical. What was the name I reserved for any eventual release? Freax. (Get it? Freaks with the requisite X.) In fact, some of the early make files—the files that describe how to compile the sources—included the word ‘Freax’ for about half a year. But it really didn’t matter. At that point, I didn’t need a name for it because I wasn’t releasing it to anybody.

So, in his head, he called it Linux, and in the make scripts he called it Freax. He also acknowledges that the X is a requisite. He’s clear on that, but not on what to call his operating system.

It was someone else who made the choice for him, forcing him to drop the duality of his naming scheme.

Your System Administrator Knows Best

Torvalds’ original email to the MINIX newsgroup piqued the interest of Ari Lemmke, a teaching assistant at the Helsinki University of Technology. They were something of kindred spirits and struck up an email-based friendship.

Lemmke was a volunteer admin on an FTP server and offered to create a directory for Torvalds to store the source code together with a few binaries of version 0.01 of his operating system. We don’t know if Ari Lemmke actually liked the name Linux, but we do know he hated the name Freax. So he named the directory “/pub/OS/Linux.”

And that was that. It was a done deal.

Linus uploaded version 0.01 of Linux on September 17, 1991, and emailed a few interested parties directly. On October 5, 1991, he emailed the MINIX newsgroup and made it publicly known that a bare-bones, but working version of Linux was available to those who wanted to experiment with it.

Within months, others were contributing to the code. Like small pebbles that build into an avalanche, the world’s largest open-source project was underway.

We can’t talk about naming Linux without mentioning GNU. All of Linus Torvalds’ effort was to develop the kernel of an operating system. To flesh it out to a truly functional operating system, the Linux kernel was paired with the GNU utilities.

GNU had the opposite problem. They had all the core Unix-like utilities, but no kernel. GNU advocates say we should call Linux GNU/Linux to acknowledge the massive contribution GNU makes to Linux. They do have a point, but I think that ship’s sailed.

What’s in a Name?

If it wasn’t for Ari Lemmke we’d be living in a world of Freax, with Arch Freax, Debian Freax, and all the other Freax distributions. And we’d think nothing of it.

As Shakespeare had Juliet say, “That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.”

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By John P.

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