The Story Behind the Names of Open Source Projects


From Git to Apache to Android, open source software projects have some interesting names. Ever wonder where those names came from? Here’s the story behind the names of ten open source projects.


The Apache Foundation, which today hosts a number of open source projects, grew out of the Apache HTTPD web server project.

The history of the Apache HTTPD server’s name is complicated. A short official history of the Apache project claims that “the name “Apache” was chosen out of respect for the Native American Apache Nation.”

That’s almost certainly not true, however. An email from early in the project’s history implies (but does not say explicitly) that the name was a pun on “a patchy server,” since Apache HTTPD was originally created by applying patches to a different server developed at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. “If you’re wondering about the name, say ‘Apache server’ ten time [sic] fast,” the email said. It said nothing about Native Americans.

Yet, the plot thickens. In a 2000 interview, one of the original Apache programmers, Brian Behlendorf, reported having invented the name “out of the blue.” It was only after the name was already in use that other programmers, who had not come up with the name, assumed incorrectly that it was a pun on “a patchy server,” Behlendorf said.

Did Behlendorf have the origin story right, or was he misremembering? Unless someone tracks down more primary sources from early in the Apache HTTPD project’s history that clarifies the story, we’ll probably never know.


The story behind Linux’s name is already pretty well known. But I can’t leave it off the list.

Linus Torvalds originally intended to call the kernel he created “Freax” when he released it publicly. But he saved the software in a directory on his local computer called “linux,” and Ari Lemke used the same name when he uploaded the Linux source code to an FTP server on September 17, 1991. The name stuck.


Git, the source code control system, also owes its name to Torvalds, who developed the platform. According to the README file of the first release:

The name “git” was given by Linus Torvalds when he wrote the very

first version. He described the tool as “the stupid content tracker”

and the name as (depending on your mood):

– random three-letter combination that is pronounceable, and not

  actually used by any common UNIX command.  The fact that it is a

  mispronunciation of “get” may or may not be relevant.

– stupid. contemptible and despicable. simple. Take your pick from the

  dictionary of slang.

– “global information tracker”: you’re in a good mood, and it actually

  works for you. Angels sing, and a light suddenly fills the room.

– “goddamn idiotic truckload of sh*t”: when it breaks


The origins of the name Android, the mobile operating system, are a little murky. But what is clear is that Google, which now owns Android, can’t take credit for the name.

Android Central reports that Andy Rubin, who founded Android, Inc. (which Google later acquired as it sought to make its mark in the mobile phone market), established the company “using a domain name he’d owned for a while already.” The article is a little ambiguous, but the implication seems to be that Rubin named the company after a domain name he already happened to have.

Why Rubin registered a domain with that name in the first place is unclear. And so the precise origins of “Android” remain a mystery.


This is an easy one. When Richard Stallman announced the GNU project in the fall of 1983, he explained that the acronym stood for “GNU’s not Unix.” There’s supposed to be a programmer’s joke in there somewhere about iteration.

By the way, I know that the GNU project is free software, not open source software. But it’s close enough to open source, so I have included it on this list.


I also know Unix is not open source software. It was born long before the concept of free or open source code emerged, and it is not governed by a free or open source license. Still, Unix is an important part of the open source landscape, from a conceptual perspective, at least. So I’m including it on the list.

Unix was created at Bell Labs in 1969, but did not receive a name until 1970, when programmer Peter Neumann suggested “UNICS” to characterize the system as an emasculated alternative to Multics. Multics was a different operating system, on which some of the original Unix programmers had worked before starting to write Unix.

Another Bell Labs programmer, Brian Kernighan, suggested “Unix,” the version of the name that stuck, later in 1970.


Created by Matthias Ettrich in 1996, KDE, an open source desktop environment, is an acronym for “Kool Desktop Environment.” I haven’t been able to figure out exactly where Ettrich came up with that term. Ettrich was German, which may explain his choice to replace “C” with “K” in the word “Cool.”


GNOME is another open source desktop environment. It was launched in 1997 as an alternative to KDE, which was dependent on the Qt library. At the time, Qt was owned by a company called Troll Tech. Although Troll Tech permitted the use of Qt on Unix-like systems for free, some programmers worried that the Qt dependency could jeopardize the future of KDE.

So they created a new platform called GNOME, which stands for “GNU Network Object Model Environment.”

At one point in my life, I assumed that the name “GNOME” was a jab at Troll Tech, since gnomes and trolls can be enemies in some fantasy worlds. Yet, I have tried and failed to find any evidence to confirm that hunch. It seems to be just a coincidence.


GIMP is a GNU image manipulation program. Actually, it’s the GNU Image Manipulation Program, hence its name.
There has been controversy over the years about some taking offense to the name. The GIMP people say they are not going to change it, however.

Chris Tozzi has worked as a journalist and Linux systems administrator. He has particular interests in open source, agile infrastructure and networking. He is Senior Editor of content and a DevOps Analyst at Fixate IO.


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