I was afraid of worms, Roxanne!

Verbing weirds language. Language is important, because saying what you mean in such a way that the audience understands what you’re talking about is the whole point of communication, isn’t it. Well, we could say that getting the idea across is what’s important. Great thinkers such as Wittgenstein and Brouwer have thought so. They even said so, or at least tried to get that idea across.

I need to say “PJU25FV3SH3J” for Technorati reasons. It does not mean much to human readers, though.

I need to say “Linux kernel” to mean the stuff you can get here, “GNU/Linux” when I mean that kernel plus a userland composed mostly of GNU software (like a command-line-shell). I’m not sure how to distinguish that from “a software stack built with the GNU development toolchain”, although it’s pretty rare to identify software based on the tools that are used to turn the program into object code.

I could say “Ubuntu” or “OpenSUSE” to mean a collection of software packaged by some organization and partly customized for some specific audience, containing at least the GNU userland, a Linux kernel, and probably a whole bunch of other tools and software packages compiled with the GNU compiler but otherwise outside of that project, and possibly including proprietary software as well.

These words start to have a wider and wider coverage, with less and less specific content. Unless I say “OpenSUSE 11.2” and add a qualifier to make more specific which collection of software I mean. Even then, I should want to indicate which packages or desktop environment I’ve got installed as part of that collection — because there’s choice in how to interpret the words, too.

A word like “freedom” has a fairly short dictionary definition, but you can see that much has been written on different meanings of freedom. That is, as a word it has a wide coverage, which then needs a great deal of talking about to pin down again. Consider Wikipedia’s freedom (philosophy) and freedom (political). Those articles are actually fairly short. I wonder why? And of course we know that “the Four Freedoms” can mean only one thing. Oh, wait .. it doesn’t. I never knew there was a disambiguation page even for that.

Good thing there’s only one Free Beer. Although I must say I prefer the 4.0 release to the 3.0 release, at least in Sweden.

Oddly enough, “FreeBSD” and “OpenSolaris” are so far free of the wordsmithing arguments about what they mean; there’s a kernel and a partly GNU userland (where each FreeBSD release tends to replacce one or two more GNU tools with BSD-licensed tools — such is the nature of licensing) and pretty much the same set of applications you can build on them. In the OpenSolaris case, the GNU tools might even be compiled with a non-GNU compiler. Perhaps these words, names or trademarks are used more like “OpenSUSE” than as a term for an general collection of software. Even if in FreeBSD’s case, it is largely unbranded. Strange world.

Of course, some of these considerations show up now because names can be redefined. I think Aaron sums it up really nicely (edited a little from his dot comment):

if you want to refer to the “whole chunk of stuff i got at once that contains all sorts of stuff” then you can refer to the KDE software compilation. we really want people to be talking about and more aware of KDE as a modular set of software suites. there’s also okular and several dozen other apps that come in the SC, and many more KDE apps that don’t come in the SC. this is why we’re changing the name, because it’s so confusing.

So on weekends, I’m still a KDE dude, but my software engineering is applied to bringing the KDE Software Compilation to OpenSolaris. It doesn’t compile right now (darn you GCC-isms, GNU-isms and Linux-isms), but it will. And at some point in the future I can point again to the %files section of the specfile and say “there! that is what it means!”

3 thoughts on “I was afraid of worms, Roxanne!

    • Come to think of it, the two bottles of Free Beer that I have here at home — from OpenExpo — are probably the Swiss fork.

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