Stop Appealing to Authority About Names

AuthoritariansBack in the early 90s, everyone pronounced Linux with a hard-i as in “fire.” For one thing, how else would an English speaker pronounce it? (If you are Finish, you can pronounce it how ever your language dictates.) But more important, Linux came from the fact that the kernel was written by Linus Torvalds.

Then everything changed in 1994 when Torvalds produced a bit of audio. On it, Torvalds said, “Hello, this is Linus Torvalds, and I pronounce Linux as ‘lee-nux.'” And everyone started pronouncing Linux incorrectly.

I don’t say people pronounced it incorrectly just because I don’t like it. Torvalds did not say he pronounced Linux as “len-ux.” In Finish, people apparently pronounce “Linus” as “Lee-nus.” But here in America, we pronounce Linus as “lie-nus.” I personally think we should pronounce Linux the way we did at first. But even if you don’t accept that, we don’t pronounce Linux the way that Torvalds did.

Now Torvalds is not a thoughtful guy. Otherwise, he would have realized that distributing his audio recording was an authoritarian move. Up to that time, people argued about it. But the moment The Great and Powerful Linus had his say, The Ignorant and Weak Computer Geeks fell into line. And now we have a stupid name for an important piece of software.

It amazes me that people fall for this stuff. If Torvalds had decided that his kernel should be named “smelly Finish anal cavity,” I doubt everyone would have followed along.

Idiot Developers Choose to Pronounce GIF as “Jif”

The issue is much worse for GIF. Steve Wilhite is the main person responsible for the image format. Like Linus Torvalds, he is a great computer scientist but otherwise an idiot. He has been outspoken in saying that it is pronounced “jif.” But his argument is nothing more than that he and the gang at CompuServ used to pronounce it like the peanut butter and say, “Choosy developers choose GIF.”

A bunch of computer scientists made a bad joke? Well, in recognition of this rare event, let’s throw all reason aside and pronounce GIF like it’s a brand of peanut butter!

The problem is that GIF is an acronym. It stands for Graphics Interchange Format. Normally, acronyms follow from the words that are in them. For example, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade is not referred to as “jat.”

Of course, the vast majority of people pronounce GIF with a hard-G. That’s because few people knew that the GIF creators thought it should be pronounced in some unreasonable way. If they had, they would have gone along as the authoritarian followers they are.

Language Is Not Proscriptive

What this all comes down to is that a group of people should be allowed to communicate the way they want. This is why I have no problem with “PIN number” — something that drives a lot of people like me crazy.

The situation is bad enough when someone hauls out the dictionary, “See! It says in The Book that you are wrong!” People often fight back against that. But when it is a computer star, the normally “libertarian” online nerd community rushes to comply, Jawohl!

And this is the real problem: authoritarianism. It isn’t just the weak internet nerds; it’s also the stars themselves. Back in 2013, Wilhite complained, “The Oxford English Dictionary accepts both pronunciations. They are wrong. It is a soft ‘G,’ pronounced ‘jif.’ End of story.”

But this is hardly surprising. Despite that most of these computer scientists think of themselves as Howard Roark, on the whole, they are limited thinkers who easily bend to facile arguments. Whether acting as authoritarian leaders or authoritarian followers, they shouldn’t be listened to.


This article strikes me as the kind of thing that certain kinds of idiots would use as a kind of gotcha, “So you agree we shouldn’t call transgender people by their preferred pronoun!” That’s not the case at all. I’m not talking about that. For one thing, this is just a matter of manners. It’s interesting that Ben Shapiro thinks that his scientific ignorance trumps any kind of social norm toward politeness.

I wouldn’t have a problem with the current pronunciation of Linux if the community had always pronounced it with a soft-I. My problem is this appeal to authority. “This piece of free software will from now on be called Liposuction!”

Of course, I pronounce Linux with a soft-I. The word is established and it would be confusing to pronounce it with a hard-I. But how ever I pronounce it isn’t going to personally harm anyone. Although if it harmed Linus Torvalds, I don’t think I’d care.

4 thoughts on “Stop Appealing to Authority About Names

  1. While I agree that we should not go too far with complaining about ‘incorrect’ usage, I also don’t like how ‘language is not prescriptive’ is used to defend any and all innovations. Certain changes (‘incorrect usages’) actually reduce the usefulness of English by making it more difficult to describe things with precision. The sole normative criterion is usefulness in communication, but certain ‘innovations’ – in reality, excuses for sloppy writing and speaking – violate this criterion.

    Preferred pronouns – depends on the case. In general, I would call people what they prefer to be called; simple politeness. But a number of self-described trans-rights activists tend to demand a complicated, highly prescriptive menu of pronouns – not simple politeness at all. I’d suggest that refusing to criticize this tendency tends to increase the appeal of the Shapiros of this world. While complicated, highly prescriptive menus are not dangerous, the Shapiro specimen is.

    But of course, the only reason I would say that is hatred of trans-people, right?

    • On the first issue, I think we should hold the line as long as we can. But people tend to hold it long after the war is over. I long ago gave up on “media” as a plural. I use “data” however those around me do. But the case of “Linux” is illustrative. I hate it but it would be insane to pronounce it differently. I have a problem with “Godot.” I continue to pronounce it the way everyone outside the US pronounces it. That’s because I don’t think the war is over. People in the theater community know how it was originally pronounced and eventually I think we will get it back. Anyway “‘god-o” sounds better than “gu-‘do.”

      I’m sure there are some in the transgender community who are authoritarians. But the vast majority of people understand goodwill. As you say, it’s just politeness. But there is always confusion. Remember when white people were freaking out and just wanted to know what to call black people? We don’t see that anymore. It is mostly about subgroups figuring it out themselves. And sure, some people use it as a way to yield power — but there are few and it doesn’t go on long.

      No, I wouldn’t say you hate transpeople. It can be confusing. And we in the majority understandably just want it to be settled. But those in the minority get to take whatever time they need to work it out. Or we could just listen to ContraPoints:

  2. @RJ — some liberals are self-righteous and slightly annoying about it. It’s always been thus. There’s a whole subset of publishing based on the “I was a liberal until I met annoying liberal X” story. Yeah, some liberals are dweebs. Doesn’t mean we throw the baby out with the bath water, others have legit complaints we need to hear.

    • Yeah, there are few things that make me hate liberals and socialists than spending time with them. Liberals are far worse, of course, because there are so many more of them and they usually haven’t studied much. “No, deary. That’s not why we want to raise the minimum wage…” They are often as ignorant as conservatives. But they make up for it by not being hateful bastards.

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