I didn’t even stop to imagine that people pronounced Linux commands differently until many years ago when I heard a co-worker use the word “vie” (as in “The teams will vie for the title”) for what I’d always pronounced “vee I.” It was a moment I’ll never forget.
Our homogenous and somewhat rebellious community of Unix/Linux advocates seemed to have descended into dialects — not just preferences for Solaris or Red Hat or Debian or some other variant (fewer back in those days than we have today), but different ways of referring to the commands we knew and used every day.
The “problem” has a number of causes. For one thing, our beloved man pages don’t include pronunciation guidelines like dictionaries do. For another, Unix commands evolved with a number of different pronunciation rules. The names of some commands (like “cat”) were derived from words (like “concatenate”) and were pronounced as if they were words, too (some actually are). Others derived from phrases like “cpio,” which pull together the idea of copying (cp) and I/O. Others are simply abbreviations, such as “cd” for “change directory.” And then we have tools like “awk” that go in an entirely different direction by being named for the surnames of its creators (Alfred Aho, Peter Weinberger, and Brian Kernighan). No wonder there are no consistent rules for how to pronounce commands!
Some commands are basically pronounced as if we are spelling them out loud — like “el es” for ls and “pee double-u dee” for pwd, while others are read like “chown” (rhyming with “clown”) as if they are words. And since many Linux users might first be exposed to the Linx command line on some old PC that they decided to put to better use, they may never hear other people saying Linux commands out loud. So, in today’s post, I’m going to explain how I pronounce Linux commands and how I’ve heard some others going in different directions.
We’ll start with the easy stuff. Several Linux commands are simply words and, at least for English speakers, just get pronounced like the words when people use them in conversation.
Linux commands that are words
These Unix/Linux commands are also common words and should be pronounced as expected.
alias apropos apt cat echo eval exec expect export find for gawk less locate man more ping shutdown snort sort tar top touch while who zip
Linux commands pronounced as if they are words
A number of other commands are pronounced as if they were words:
awk beginning of “awkward” chmod sh+mod (one syllable) chown ch+own (rhymes with "clown") cron beginning of “chronology” grep similar to “grope”, but with a soft “e” (as in “end”) ifconfig if+config (beginning of “configure”) ifdown if+down ifup if+up netstat net+stat passwd pronounced as if spelled “password” perl pronounced like “pearl” sed pronounced like "said" sudo pronounced like "pseudo” (doesn’t rhyme with “voodoo”) traceroute pronounced like the word “trace” followed by the word “route” uniq pronounced like "unique” vim rhymes with “gym” (I’ve never heard it pronounced “vee eye em” whoami pronounced like the question “Who am I?”
Linux commands that are spelled out
In my experience, all of these commands are simply spelled out. People say “see dee” for cd and “pee es” for ps, etc.
cd cp cpio dd df du env ln ls ps pwd ssh tr ufw w wc
Anyone who says “piss” for ps or “turr” for tr is bound to get some funny looks.
Linux commands that are both read and spelled out
Other commands include words but also contain some extra letters that are generally spelled out.
emacs pronounced “ee max” gzip pronounced “gee zip” (not "gee zee ipp") mysql pronounced “my es queue el” nslookup pronounced “en es lookup” rsync pronounced “are sync” sdiff pronounced “es diff” slocate pronounced “es locate” xtop pronounced “ex top” uname pronounced “you name” vmstat pronounced “vee em stat” wget pronounced “double you get” xargs pronounced “ex args”
Breaking the rules
It gets more interesting in some cases when, like my old coworker with her “vie” pronunciation for vi, people vary from these general pronunciations. I can only imagine what the commands sound like when pronounced in languages that have very different pronunciation rules.
Probably the command with the most variations in how it’s pronounced is the fsck command. Part of the reason may be its similarity to a common English curse word. I’ve always pronounced it as if I were spelling it — “ef es see kay.” Others, however, say “ef es check,” “fiss check,” or even “ef suck.”
And it’s not just commands
There many directories and files on Unix and Linux systems that also get pronounced in multiple ways. One that comes to mind is /etc. While I’ve always said “etsy,” some say “etcetera” or “ee tee see.” In addition, I’ve referred to the fstab file as “ef es tab” though I’ve heard it called “ef stab.” There are probably many others, and I’d love to hear some of your favorite mispronunciation stories.