Get to know Linux: Terminology

Jack Wallen
Aug 14, 2009
Updated • Dec 5, 2012

I have been covering the Linux operating system for a long time now. There are moments when I take it for granted that everyone knows the basic terminology surrounding this operating system. Because this is obviously not the case, I thought it might be a good time to stop and explain some of the terms that many Linux users toss about every day as if they were household terms.

Some of these terms might seem very basic to a few readers and some of them not so basic. It is important, however, that we are all standing on common ground and not having to "google" a term all the time. This article will not be exhaustive, it will cover a few terms. In later "Get to know Linux" articles we will cover more of these terms. Without further adieu, let's proceed.

~/ or users' home: This is the directory, created when you either install your operating system or create a new user (with the right arguments), that holds all of your personal data. This directory is created based on what is in the /etc/skel directory. This is the one directory your user has full permissions in. From the command line, the fastest way to get to this directory is to enter the command cd.

Kernel: This is the heart of Linux. In fact some purists will tell you that this IS Linux and everything else is nothing more than various applications built to run on top of Linux. The Linux kernel is a true preemptive multi-tasking kernel, is written in C, and is the single largest "application" on your system. Without the kernel you would not have a Linux operating system. "Back in the day" you would hear Linux users talk about "rolling their own kernel" or "compiling their own kernel". This referred to building a kernel to meet specific needs. At one time this was almost a necessity for many users. This is not so much the case now as the modern kernel contains just about everything you would need.

Distribution: A distribution of Linux is a bundled variation of Linux. There are a number of major distributions such as: Ubuntu, Fedora, SuSE, Debian. There are also a far greater number of minor distributions: PCLinuxOS,  Linux Mint, Elive, Gentoo, etc. Each distribution has its own selling point. For example: Ubuntu is one of the best known distributions for new users. On the other hand of the spectrum, Gentoo is for highly experienced users. You will often here the term "distro" used in place of "distribution".

Terminal, Console, or Terminal Emulator: This is where commands are entered. There are really two places this is done: In a terminal window or a Console. Often these terms are exchanged, but there is a difference. A terminal window is generally a small application (like gnome-terminal or xterm) that allows you to enter commands. The console is actually the command line version of the Linux interface. To get to what is typically called "console mode" you would either have to go to a virtual console (using <Ctrl><Alt>F1-0) or log out of X and kill your graphical log in (such as gdm). When your monitor shows nothing but your bash prompt, you are in "console mode".

X: This term stands for X Window System. In simplest terms, X provides the graphical interface for Linux. Of course it is much more complex than that. The X Windows system alone wouldn't offer you much functionality as X only provides the framework for the GUI. Running only X would give you a grayish screen, a cursor, and not much more. What you don't see is that X provides the very foundation that enables your window managers and desktops to do what they do. You will often here the phrase "Log out of X" which, for the purposes of the end user, means log out of your desktop.

Package Manager: One of the key selling points for distributions is which package manager they use. A package manager is the system which applications are automatically installed, removed, and generally managed on a system.Two of the major package management systems for Linux: dpkg and rpm. The dpkg was originally for Debian systems but is now employed by Ubuntu and others as well. RPM was created for the Red Hat Linux distribution but now is used by Fedora, SuSE, and others. Each of these systems have both command line tools (such as apt and apt-get for dpkg, and yum for RPM) and GUI tools (such as gpk-application for RPM and Synaptic for dpkg).

Final thoughts

There you have a few of the terms you should be familiar with when using the Linux operating system. We will continue with more terms at a later date. If you would like to request terms to be defined (or if you would like to request a Linux topic in general), please feel free to contact me.


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  1. robert wilber said on June 13, 2012 at 3:55 pm

    Jack Wallen

    I wonder if you could help a newbie that just two days ago installed Ubuntu Linux 9.04 Google special edition with few of google gadgets. My distro is not supported so the up dates don’t work, my desktop pc seems to won’t install the ubuntu 11.10 distro I have. My system has layed versions of 9.04 from me re-installing it trying to format all the drive need help please thanks.

  2. michael steiner said on November 20, 2009 at 8:29 am

    Oh, thank you so much of acknowledge the fact that Linux terms are not household terms. I am a newbie to Linux and find it so frustrating to go to a Linux forum as a newbie and ask a question, only to get a reply where the person is either commenting or asking for further information and using Linux terminology to do so. I then end up with more questions than answers because I find myself having to stop and look up the terms they just gave me. I would be nice to find a Linux forum where those who contribute, don’t assume anything and take the time to explain or offer to explain everything. I just want to take the time to thank you for your article. For, when I say I am a newbie, I mean “newbie.” So, once again thanks.

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