Chad Perrin: SOB

14 December 2008

computer terms: spelling and pronunciation

Filed under: Geek — Tags: — apotheon @ 02:16

One of the more regular annoyances I run into with discussion computer related topics is variations in computer term spelling and pronunciation. I’ll explain some of what’s going on with several of them:

Apple MacOS X

It sometimes seems like nobody can agree on whether it should be called MacOS “X” or MacOS “Ten”. On one hand, the X represents the Roman numeral for decimal 10, as the successor to MacOS 9; on the other hand, the logical choice would be to pronounce the name of the letter “X”, because when referring to version numbers it is written “MacOS X 10.3” (for instance) — and saying “Mac Oh Ess Ten Ten Point Three” strikes me as pretty retarded. On the gripping hand, the official pronunciation is explained as “Mac O-S ten”.

Because I normally prefer to side with prescriptivists in matters of linguistics, you might imagine that I go around calling it “MacOS Ten” the way Apple intended. After all, it’s an Apple Computer, Inc. trademark; it’s Apple’s term. Apple gets to decide what it’s called. Right?

My preference for the prescriptive approach is based on my preference for having a clarified, correct way to use terms, but that is in turn based on my preference for having effective, efficient ways to communicate. If we can all agree on a correct, unambiguous means of reference, we should do so — all else being equal. The version numbering snag in the argument over how to pronounce “MacOS X”, coupled with the implied suggestion that the X might have something to do with the Unixy underpinnings of the OS (people sometimes refer to the whole extended family of Unix-like OSes as *X sometimes, after all), suggests a better pronunciation would be MacOS X, no matter what the Apple marketing department’s mandate might be.

I have tended to call it MacOS “X” rather than “Ten”, and I will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. The “Ten” pronunciation will surely never go away any time soon, because it’s the “official” pronunciation, and one might argue that we should actively try to unify pronunciation by adopting the one that it is least possible for us to abolish, but because referring to it by either term is unlikely to lead to confusion in conversation (everybody knows what you mean, regardless of which pronunciation you use), I’ll stick with “X”, the letter’s name. In fact, when abbreviating the OS name by dropping the “Mac” part, I find the “Ten” version even less desirable because of the striking similarity of pronunciation between Apple’s OS X (“Oh Ess Ten”) and IBM’s defunct “Oh Ess Two” (OS/2).


The software development APIs inherited by MacOS X from NeXTSTEP (and, later, OPENSTEP) is called Cocoa. The name, obviously, hearkens to the pedestrian term cocoa, as in “chocolate”, which is pronounced like “koh koh”. For some reason, though, there’s an inordinate number of Mac-heads who seem to think it should (pretentiously) be pronounced “koh koah”. I think maybe they let the whole “We pronounce things differently in Mac-land!” thing, what with the letter X being pronounced “ten”, go to their heads.

I’ve searched extensively, and there doesn’t appear to be any official pronunciation guide online for the term as used by Apple — which indicates to me that they must figure it should be blatantly obvious, since it’s a normal word with a known pronunciation (“koh koh”, of course). In fact, while a bunch of MacOS X developers and users like to say “koh koah”, the real insiders, movers and shakers, in the Mac development world all seem to pronounce it “koh koh” — as demonstrated in audio interviews.

Maybe the people who favor “koh koah” are mostly just users who migrated from open source OSes, influenced by the GNU project’s perverse pronunciation obsessions. I don’t remember any long-time Mac users who haven’t really used Linux, or immigrants from MS Windows Land (who similarly were not Linux users), ever calling it anything other than “koh koh” — like the actual non-trademark word cocoa.


A persistent process on a Unix-like operating system that is intended to run in the background and interact (primarily) with other programs, rather than operating in the foreground under direct control of the user, is called a daemon. Such programs are often server processes. This term is pronounced exactly the same as the word “demon”, which is actually etymologically descended from daemon. It is not pronounced “day mun”.

Note that Beastie, a ubiquitous BSD Unix mascot, is a daemon — not a devil. For some reason, a lot of people never get that.

/etc and other filesystem stuff

The /etc directory on Unix-like OSes is spelled like the abbreviation of the Latin “et cetera”, except it’s missing the trailing period. The proper way to spell the abbreviation is “etc.” (and not “ect” as I’ve seen it far too many times). The proper way to pronounce “etc.” is “et set-er-uh” — exactly like the unabbreviated term “et cetera” — but that’s not the way old-school Unix hackers started pronouncing the directory name Back In The Day. They went, instead, with “et see”. Due to considerable exposure to Unix hacker culture, I too have adopted that pronunciation — and it is, in essence, the unofficial official way to pronounce the name of the /etc directory. I don’t know if there’s a similarly unofficial official pronunciation for directory names such as /usr or /var. I tend to pronounce them “user” and “vahr”. If you know differently, please let me in on the secret, but if you’re just guessing like me I’m afraid that’s not going to help me much whether you agree with my pronunciation or not.

I don’t know if there’s a “proper” way to differentiate between / and /root via pronunciation when saying them aloud. I tend toward “the root directory” for / — which is, in fact, the unarguably official pronunciation for / — and either “the root user directory” or “slash root” when referring to /root, for which I’ve never encountered any authoritative pronunciation standard. If you have reasonably good sources on how /root should be pronounced to differentiate it from /, I’d love to hear about it.


For some reason, when constructing the recursive backronym “GNU’s Not UNIX”, Richard Stallman and his friends have decided that the G should be pronounced separately from the N and the U. There is a previously existing word, “gnu”, that isn’t pronounced that way, though. A gnu is basically just a wildebeest — and pronounced correctly, the G is either regarded as a silent letter (pronounced like “new”) or a modifier to how the N is pronounced the way gn works in Italian, so that the word ends up being pronounced “nyoo” (or “ñu”, if you prefer the Spanish spelling). Since “nyoo” is annoying to say and sounds silly, and in a software context the “new” pronunciation of gnu makes it too easy to confuse with its homonym new (the actual word), I’ve just caved in and started using the “official” GNU project’s pronunciation, “guh-new”. That also, happily, lends itself to the distinct pronunciation of GNUrd as “guh-nerd” when referring to the overzealous Church of GNU faithful.

The GNOME “Desktop Environment” project is part of the larger GNU project. As such, of course the perversity of GNU project pronunciation spills over. Whereas the previously existing word gnome takes a silent G approach to pronunciation (resulting in “nome”), the GNOME project insists that it is pronounced “guh-nome”. Whereas “GNU” and “new” are very easily confused in a computer software context if the G is made silent, however, the same kind of problem doesn’t really exist for GNOME. Not many people are going to think that, when you say you use GNOME as your GUI environment, you’re talking about the city of Nome, Alaska. As such, I draw the line on stupid-sounding, pretentious, intentional mispronunciations of terms by people associated with the GNU project at “guh-nome”. I call it GNOME, and so should you. Screw those guh-nerds.


The name of the Linux operating system kernel is a Unix-ified modification of the name of its creator, Linus Torvalds. I know a lot of Americans are used to the Peanuts character Linus, whose name is pronounced “Line Us”, but that’s not how Linus Torvalds pronounces his name. He’s from Finland, and around there they pronounce it more like “Lee Noose”. As such, if you’re Finnish, you should be pronouncing Linux like “Lee Nukes”. If you’re a lazy American like me, you might let that slide into “Lin Ucks”. Whatever you do, please don’t call it “Line Ucks”.


The ANSI SQL standard specifically states that SQL is pronounced by the names of the letters, and not “sequel” as so many Microsoft techies say it. Thus, TSQL is “Tee Ess Queue Ell”, and not “Tea Sequel”. It’s a good idea to call it SQL not only because the standard says so, but also because there is an antecedent — but quite distinct — query language whose name is actually SEQUEL, pronounced “sequel”. For reasons of both official correctness and disambiguation with another language in the same technical namespace, SQL should be called “Ess Queue Ell”.

There are, however, context dependent special cases of which one should be aware.

Microsoft SQL Server

As a commercial software offering, MS SQL Server is subject to the whims of its vendor. Microsoft calls it “Sequel” Server, and frankly, calling it “Ess Queue Ell” Server is kind of clunky and cumbersome. Confusion between MS “Sequel” Server and any reference to the SEQUEL language is highly unlikely (effectively impossible), so there doesn’t seem to be any immediate harm in pronouncing it “sequel” in this context. There is, unfortunately, some less direct harm done by the way it trains a bunch of Microsoft SQL Server admins to think of SQL as being pronounced “sequel”, but that’s life, I suppose.

MySQL and PostgreSQL

In accordance with the ANSI standard pronunciation, both these open source DBMSes’ names are pronounced using the individual letter names rather than by mashing them together and mutating them to come up with “sequel”. MySQL, for example, is thus pronounced “My Ess Queue Ell” — which is handy when one might otherwise be confused about whether a speaker is referring to his second book or his database when he says “my sequel”.

PostgreSQL is a slightly more complex and less obvious case, but it all makes perfect sense when one bothers to think about it. Originally, there was a database called Ingres. Later, many of the people who developed it worked on a new project and called it Postgres — basically, Post ‘gres, or “after (In)gres”. Latter, deciding to hop on the SQL buzzwordism bandwagon, the name of the project was changed to PostgreSQL, which is properly pronounced “Postgres Queue Ell”. When abbreviating PostgreSQL by removing the SQL reference, then, one should not simply lop those three letters off the end and come up with Postgre, pronounced (lamely) “Post Gree” — but should instead return to the original term Postgres. The word “Postgre” has absolutely no origin in anything other than confusion and laziness.

. . . and that’s it for now.

If you have any suggestions for other terms I might address, let me know, and maybe I’ll add them to this list — or write up a separate list where I’d include them.

All original content Copyright Chad Perrin: Distributed under the terms of the Open Works License