Originally Published: Thursday, 12 July 2001 Author: Jerry Kilpatrick
Published to: learn_articles_firststep/General Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

How to Speak Geek

Ever get uncertain or confused while in the company of technical folks? Don't like that uncomfortable sweaty feeling? Not to worry, it's probably just the words you are using when you open your mouth and speak. Linux.com and Jerry Kilpatrick feel your pain: Read on to find out how to "Speak Geek" and never sound like an idiot again!

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The Reason for This Article.

You may not know it, but speaking like a true geek is very important in the computer industry. When you talk to a knowledgeable individual about computers and misuse terms you lose creditability with that person. In some cases you can pass this off as, "Who cares what he/she thinks", however, when you need this person for information, for help, or perhaps you are trying to get a job, that can be a totally different story. When in their natural habitat it is better to talk to geek in their own language, especially if you plan to spend some time there.

I plan to cover the most common mistakes made when talking about computers and Linux so you will not fall into the same pitfalls that many other people do daily. Everybody has to learn the basic vocabulary at some point; I have gone through the stage of making mistakes while interviewing for a job. In a case like that you have to work extra hard to regain your creditability since you have just laid a seed of doubt in the mind of your future employer. You seldom see this kind of basic material written down though. I hope this article will help you to be able to both talk like a true geek, and equally be able to understand a true geek should you ever need to.

Bits and Pieces of a Computer System.

Having previously worked in a tech. support environment for an ISP (Internet Service Provider), I have heard almost every possible mistake when talking to people about their computers. Mostly the mistakes that people made while I was doing tech support were hardware related. What Is The Computer, and What Is Not?

Your computer is only the box into which the drives and internal parts like modems and network cards are placed. Many people think the computer also includes your monitor, keyboard, and/or mouse. This is an incorrect assumption. All of those parts combined are parts of your 'computer system' but they are not part off the computer itself.

Another mistake that is common is calling the box (the computer) your CPU (Central Processing Unit). The CPU is actually a chip inside the computer. It is the brains, if you will, of your computer. But your computer encompasses much more than just the brains, there is other hardware such as modems, network cards, hard drives, floppy drives, and memory.

The Difference Between Memory and Memory.

When describing your computer to someone else you normally mention a list of aspects of the computer. The list is as follows: CPU (Also known as Processor) speed, hard disk size, and amount of RAM (Random Access Memory). Lets say for example you have 64 Megs (an abbreviation for Megabytes) of RAM and a 3 Gig (an abbreviation for Gigabytes) hard drive. A common mistake when describing a computer would be to say it has 64 Megs of ram and 3 Gigs of memory. Though this isn't exactly wrong in a philosophical sense, if you say you have 3 Gigs of memory, people will be confused and think you are talking about 3 Gigs of RAM. To better describe your computer and not sound like an idiot, you should state that you have 64 Megs of RAM, and a 3 Gig hard drive.

Small things like that seem insignificant, but are actually very important when talking to a geek.

Linux, Distribution vs. Kernel

I Run Linux 7.2! (WRONG!)

OK, this is a major mistake made by many people. There is quite a bit of separation between the version of Linux you are running and the version of the distribution you are running. Lets start by explaining what your kernel is.

What Is My Kernel?

Linux, regardless of what software is put on top of it, is only a kernel. The kernel is what allows your computer to boot and use the internal devices, memory and pretty much anything that had to do with the hardware in your computer. The kernel is the very base of the OS (Operating System). It is what allows the computer to get to the point where it can run software. However, the software is completely separated from Linux.

As For The Distribution?

The distribution is all of the software that is installed to run using the Linux kernel. Everything, from the simplest commands such as 'ls' to your web server is part of the distribution. The distribution includes all of the scripts that allow your computer to be usable after the kernel is done booting. The distribution is what makes the Linux kernel actually useful. Without a distribution your computer would boot, detect all of the hardware and just sit there.

Why Is 'I Run Linux 7.2!' Wrong?

There are two major kernel versions that are being used right now. The 2.2 Linux kernel and the 2.4 Linux kernel. The 7.2 would most likely be referring to the release of your distribution such as RedHat 7.2, Mandrake 7.2, Slackware 7.2, etc. But each of those uses a specific kernel such as Linux 2.4.5 or Linux 2.2.19. So the correct thing you should say, for example, is: 'I run RedHat 7.2 with the 2.4.5 Linux kernel.'

A Note About Kernel Versions.

You'll notice that I mentioned the two major kernel lines as 2.2 and 2.4. Then I mentioned that the distributions come with a kernel such as 2.4.5 or 2.2.19. The first number in a kernel is the major release. That means this is the second major overhaul of Linux. Now the middle number is interesting. If the middle number is even, it is a stable kernel. And likewise if it is odd, it is a development kernel. An example as to when this numbering comes into play is while everyone was using the 2.2 kernel line, there was a 2.3 kernel line that was in development. Once 2.3 became stable they made it 2.4. This allows users like you to use a stable kernel while there is further development going on. And once they decide that their development model is stable they release the next kernel that you should move to: In this case 2.4. Now the third number is the release number of that version or line of the kernel. There are always bug fixes and optimizations happening to a kernel line so the last number increments each time a new release is out. Linux Kernel 2.4.5 means it's the second major release of the kernel, it's a stable kernel and there have been 5 sets of fixes and optimizations done to it.

How Do I Know What Kernel I'm Running?

If you login and type uname -a it will display information about the currently running kernel. However if you only want the kernel version you can type uname -r and it will display only the revision number of the kernel.


A lot of people don't mean to misuse terms, it's just a case of not knowing better. I would suggest that if you don't know the proper way to say something or explain something you could always ask someone. Don't try to use big words that you are uncomfortable using: that usually backfires and is more damaging than just keeping your terminology simple. As I like to say, 'Please don't tell me there is a problem with the router if you don't know what or how the router does what it does. Just tell me there is a problem connecting to the Internet and it'll save both of us a lot of time.' OK, well I might not really say that too often, but I hope it gets the point across.

If you want to study more fun terminology that you can use there is a wonderful geek website called the Jargon File. Created and maintained by the legendary Eric (S) Raymond the file is a list of terminology collected from geeks all over the world. Go to http://www.jargon.org/. They usually have an example of how each term is used, and frankly they can be quite fun to use.

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