[FAQ] Linux Vocabulary


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I've seen many people here ask what a distro is or what KDE is many times. Hopefully this topic will clear those questions up. The words are categorized.

Beginner Linux Vocabulary

Distro - Short for Distribution, a distro is a set of programs combined with the linux kernel to create an operating system.

Kernel - The core of Linux. The kernel is what controls the hardware and is what every linux distro is built upon. The latest kernel to the date of this writing is 2.6.36. Using the term Linux refers to the kernel, not an operating system as Linux is not an operating system but the kernel per se. Linux is typically misused in this manner.

Bash - Bourne Again Shell is a command line terminal in Linux. For alot of distros (esp older ones) the shell is the only way to install programs and configure the system. If a Linux Distro didnt come installed with a GUI, it will typically boot into this. For a guide on using the shell view this free e-book: http://tille.garrels.be/training/bash/

Root - The ruler of all Linux systems. This is a user that you have access to that can do anything to a linux system. It is highly recommended that you don't use root as it can damage a system if used incorrectly.

Linus Torvalds - The one who wrote the linux kernel in 1991.

Sudo - Stands for Super User DO, allows a user to have root access without logging in as root. Typically used from the command line.

Software Vocabulary

Compile - Installing an application from it's source code. Another name for this word is build.

Source - The actual code that a program is coded in.

Binary - Usually a program or package that is encoded in binary(the 0's and the 1's), another term for this is machine language.

Package - A piece of Software like gtfp.

Dependency - A package that a package depends upon to work.

Package Manager Vocabulary

apt - Debian linux's packaging system. Apt uses .deb files. Apt is most popular for it's extension, apt-get(see below).

apt-get - An extension of Debian's apt package manager. Apt-get employs the search and get method found in todays package managers.

Portage - Gentoo Linux's packaging system. Portage is more powerful for it's ability to customize it in so many ways for almost any need. Alot of users pick Gentoo just for Portage. Portage compiles programs by source.

YaST - Yet Another Setup Tool is SuSE's front end to it's package manager. YaST is also used to manage the settings and aspects of the system.

RPM - Redhat Package Manager is among the widely used package manager. Originally created by Redhat, it's now used by a handful of Linux Distributions including but not limited to Fedora, Mandriva, SUSE and more.

Pacman - Arch Linux's Package Manager. Allows a user to install apps with 1 command from the terminal. Name has no meaning

Ports - A BSD package manager for which was Portage(see above) is based off of. Installs software from source.

Yum - Yellow dog Updater, Modified. Yum is a package management utility used by several distributions including Fedora for RPM and centOS.

Graphical User Interface Vocabulary

Desktop Environment - DE for short, are numerous applications bundled together in a package to provide the user with a nice working environment to use the computer. Typically comes with Window Manager(see below). The 2 most popular DE's are KDE and GNOME.

Window Manager - A program that draws Windows to the screen but does not come with any applications or such, typcially bundled in DE's(see above). A popular one is Metacity for GNOME.

X11 - Stands for X Window System. This program provides the foundation for which Desktop Environments are build upon. X11 draws the UI.

XOrg - Xorg is a program that give Linux the ability to have GUI. This is a NOT Desktop Environment or Window Manager! Every program with a GUI requires this to run.

KDE - K Desktop Environment is an environment that tends to feature alot of eye candy and has a more windows feel to it. It uses the QT toolkit. For more information visit http://kde.org.

Gnome - GNU Object Model Environment is environment like KDE that strives for usability. It does not have all the eye candy that KDE has. GNOME uses the GTK toolkit. For more info on Gnome vist http://gnome.org.

XFCE - A Desktop Environment based off of GTK and GNOME, mucher lighter compared to KDE and GNOME, good for older systems. For more information visit http://xfce.org

*box - The *boxes include fluxbox, blackbox, openbox and few others. These are all desktop environments designed to run on minimal resources. You wont get fancy effects like on gnome or kde but on the otherside, the *boxes can run on very low end systems.

Compbiz/Beryl - A Window manager that gives a desktop environment several special effects just as wiggling windows, transparencies, glass windows, and more.

Bootloader Vocabulary

Bootloader - A bootloader is a app that typically resides in your MBR(Master Boot Record). It allows you to select what os to boot on startup.

Master Boot Record - The Master Boot Record or MBR is the 1st few MB on your hard drive. It typically tells what the hard drive should boot aka Linux or Windows. Most times when using Linux a Bootloader resides here.

Grub - GRand Unified Bootloader is a bootloader that allows you to set boot options and additional features at startup. This is the most popular bootloader.

SysLinux - A family of lightweight bootloaders. It's generally used for Live CD's.

Linux Developer Vocabulary

Toolkit - A set of tools usually used to compile programs or make them.

GTK - Gimp Toolkit. A toolkit for X11 for creating GUI's. Used by GNOME, XFCE and many other Desktop Envirments and Apps.

QT Toolkit - A toolkit for X11 for creating GUI's, rivals GTK. Used by KDE and many other DE's + Apps.

File Systems Vocabulary

Swap Space - A partition or file residing on the hard drive varying in space thats used as an extension of memory for the operating system. These are slowly becoming depreciated as computers ship with more and more ram.

ext* - A family of file systems that supports large drives and offers journaling support. Ext4 is the most recent version of this file system. The ext* family is the most used file system in Linux.

XFS - A high performance journaling file system supported by nearly every linux distro.

Paritioning Vocabulary

General note: Linux is not like windows where you generally will have 1 partition for the operating system. A Linux system can have large amounts of partitions. Most common you'll have a /boot, /home and / partition. The advantage of this is you can usually reinstall the operating system without losing your personal data


Extended Partition - A type of partition that can be sub divided into separate logical partitions. Only 1 extended partition can exist on a drive.

Primary Partition - A partition that contains a single file system. Unlike extended partitions you are not limited to just 1 per drive.

I will update this frequently.

EDIT: Seperated LILO and Grub and added Bootloader.

EDIT 6/10: Added MBR, Root and Source.

EDIT: 8/14: More descriptions of package managers, added YaST

EDIT: 6/2: Modifyed some sentences, added Binary, sudo, xorgconfig, xfce, gtk, qt

EDIT: 6/3: Categorized the words, added Pacman, ports, Desktop Envirment, Window Manager

EDIT: 11/7: Added links to KDE and Gnome.

EDIT: 1/23: Seperated Apt-get and apt, added fluxbox, rpm, yum and dpkg-reconfigure xserver-xorg/xfree86, also changed YaST definitions.

EDIT: 4/5: Added Toolkit, Compbiz/Beryl, fixed some spelling errors and reworded some definitions.

EDIT: 2/16/09: Added X11, changed Blackbox to *box to reflect the many DE's based on them.

EDIT: 11/16/10: Reworded some definition, added file systems, partitioning. Removed some obsolete terms.

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Pinned and added [FAQ] to title. (also some spelling corrections) :whistle:

Good info for those new to Linux. :yes:

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Great work! And here's the obvious nitpicking ;-) :

- Linus Torvalds _started_ the Linux kernel (it was originally called 'Freax', some Usenet admin renamed the folder containing the first release to 'Linux' to honor Linus' work). Many more people work on Linux today, but Linus still is the leader (together with Andrew Morton for Linux 2.6.x)

- It's debatable if Gnome really looks more professional than KDE. I would remove that. They obviously look different, but it's up to the user to decide which one's more professional. Why not provide links to their sites, so that the users decide for themselves?

- The X11 server, based on a common standard by the X Consortium/ The Open Group (X version 11, release 6 right now), has many implementations - next to XFree86 and Xorg, there are, eg, Exceed, Metro X, KDrive, TinyX. It provides a network-transparent, standardized way to draw graphics to the screen, but the only thing about X11 the user usually sees is the black and white pattern when X starts, before the windowmanager is started. The icons and everything get drawn by the desktop environment. BTW, the ugly black and white pattern is there on purpose: A solid color would make it impossible for some monitors to auto-adjust after the resolution changed.

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  • 2 weeks later...
I fixed some of the grammer.  :)


grammAr <----Or at least it is in England.

Thanks for this, I only installed Linux today and this has helped alot.

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  • 11 months later...

Did a major update, categorized the words and added 2 more.

Linux Vocab v. 1a :D



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  • 1 month later...

Fairly short definitions and in some cases not all that descriptive...

For example, source...source is a human readable language (such as C, Python, Perl, PHP, and Java) that the programmer uses to write the program and it is then compiled or interpreted and then run.

And for KDE, it is a full desktop environment which includes many programs along with the window manager to add usability out of the box.

GNOME goes for a lighter desktop environment and the developers only put what they feel is necessary and go through cleanup cycles every so often to remove what they deem unnecessary. And actually KDE is about to do some cleaning up too (although not as big as GNOME does).

I think some links would help as well.

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  • 5 months later...

If you really want to make it accurate take the following into consideration; they're just things that jumped out at me. I don't mean to sound cheeky, just pointing it all out.

It's apt, not apt-get. You also mention YaST as SuSE's package manager, when it uses RPM. YaST, as far as I know is just a front end, much like Syanaptic is for apt, but correct me if I'm wrong.

Where is rpm?

Where is yum?

Where is fluxbox?

It's spelled environment.

Xorgconfig, as I can imagine, is used in more advanced distros, however in Debian and its derivatives dpkg-reconfigure xserver-xorg/xfree86 is used and they're not really programs, but more implementations of the X window system.

Linux, is not the OS. Sure, it's been deemed as it by the media and what not but if you want to get technical GNU is the OS and Linux is the kernel. RMS wrote GNU and needed a kernel. He began development of Hurd and it was a little harder than he thought and couldn't get it to do certain things that he wanted. He came across Linus' kernel and implemented it, however he still to this day is actively working on the Hurd kernel and certain distributions, such as Debian, allow you to use the Hurd kernel over Linus'.

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