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A Linux Jargon-Buster

written by: John Lister•edited by: Rebecca Scudder•updated: 6/24/2009

Newcomers to Linux are often baffled by unfamiliar terms and phrases. We explain some of the most common Linux-related terms and the role they play in the system.

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    Desktop environment. This is a set of programs which control how information is displayed on-screen and how the user interacts with the computer. It effectively fulfills the same role as the visual elements of Windows. The two most common desktop environments are called Gnome and KDE.

    Distribution (or distro). This is a package of programs and features which makes up each ‘version’ of Linux. A distribution will always contain the Linux kernel, an operating system and a way of displaying information graphically as with Windows; it will usually also contain some applications.

    EXT2. This is the most common file system used in Linux distributions.

    Fork. This is when a developer takes an existing Linux development project and works on it by themselves rather than with other developers. Though the development community believes people have the right to do this, it’s generally frowned upon as it can needlessly duplicate efforts.

    Linux kernel. This is the heart of any Linux-based operating system. Like any kernel, it acts as the brain of the system and controls how the hardware and software interact, plus decides which activity a computer should carry out at any particular instant. (It’s important to note that when people use the term ‘Linux’, they are usually referring to any and all operating systems based around the Linux kernel.)

    Live CD. This is a version of Linux which can run directly from a CD or other portable format without having to be installed on a computer first. This is particularly useful for people who want to run Linux on a Windows machine without worrying about installing the two systems side by side.

    Package. This is the name for the file which contains a particular program for downloading and installation.

    Package manager. This is software used to download and install other programs from the Internet. Using a package manager means you don’t have to visit different websites to download different programs.

    Repository. This is a collection of software hosted in one location, usually online. It is where a package manager will get hold of software.

    Root. This is the name for a user on the computer who has complete control over the machine (similar to a Windows user with Administrator privileges). For security reasons, many Linux users avoid logging on as a root user whenever possible.

    Shell and command line. This is another name for the Terminal (see below).

    Terminal. This is a way of controlling a computer through text only rather than using Windows-style visual controls.

    xWindows. This is the style of graphical display used by many desktop environments. It’s designed to look and feel reminiscent of Microsoft Windows.