Why is it called /etc?
April 10, 2006 10:07 PM   Subscribe

On Unix systems, what is the origin of the directory name "/etc"? That is, why is it called that versus "config", "conf", or anything else that might make sense? Thanks!
posted by arrhn to Computers & Internet (43 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
I'm sorry. You're looking for Unix file conventions to make sense? A guess would be that conf or config are 4 or 5 letters whereas etc is 3.
posted by rdr at 10:20 PM on April 10, 2006


It means etcetera.... extra stuff. Over time, it has morphed into "where system-wide configuration files go". Back in the early days, I think it was just "everything that's not binaries or man pages".

There's more at Wikipedia.
posted by Malor at 10:22 PM on April 10, 2006


The wikipedia article is about a standardization effort that began when UNIX was already entering middle age. /etc has been around since at least V7.
posted by rdr at 10:33 PM on April 10, 2006


The origin of Unix names is getting dangerously close to holy war status ;)

OSes usually store their init scripts in /etc, which I wouldn't classify under config. As Malor said, I think its basicall non-binary system data.
posted by devilsbrigade at 10:40 PM on April 10, 2006


rdr, so you don't buy that "etc" was originally coined to stand for "et cetera," meaning "and others" or "all the shit we didn't know where to put elsewhere"? Seems plausible to me.
posted by staggernation at 10:44 PM on April 10, 2006


I didn't say I didn't believe that etc stands for etcera. I just said that the wikipedia article ponted to something that started in 1993. I went to trailing edge and looked at a copy of Unix V5, which at about 1974 is earliest version of UNIX I could find. It had /etc. I'm serious about my guess that etc was preferred because it's only three letters long.

If you find me something say Dennis Ritchie name /etc that because it's for non-binary system data I'll believe it. Until then I'll believe that that explanation is plausible but unprovable just so story.
posted by rdr at 11:07 PM on April 10, 2006


rdr: "If you find me something say Dennis Ritchie name /etc that because it's for non-binary system data I'll believe it. Until then I'll believe that that explanation is plausible but unprovable just so story."

OK. Sorry, it's Bob and Brian, not the big D, but maybe you'll buy it just the same.
posted by kcm at 11:14 PM on April 10, 2006


I think it's reasonably obvious that "/etc" is short for "et cetera," but I also think that rdr is on to something with the comment that "etc" is shorter than "config" or whatever.

Back in the old days, many Unix terminals were teletype terminals, at perhaps 110 baud. Every character counts at that speed, so many of the Unix names for things are perhaps, a bit less nonsensical viewed in that light, e.g., "ls," "dd" or "tar".

Or maybe the Unix inventors were just, shall we say, eclectic.

My recollection is also that older Unix systems actually had binaries in /etc, e.g., /etc/ifconfig, /etc/netstat, /etc/rmt, and so on. I'm probably recalling from the middle BSD era here, either 2.9 or 4.2 or so (mid 1980s). I still have /etc in my search path, copied down through the years, even though the Linux systems I use now don't have any executables in /etc.

[Disclosure: I'm old enough to have actually used a Decwriter, but I had no say in the selection of names for Unix commands, and this is just my rambling.]
posted by doorsnake at 11:19 PM on April 10, 2006


When Dennis Ritchie was asked what he would do diffrerently regarding the birth of Unix, he said "I would put a 'e' in /tmp"
posted by scarabic at 11:25 PM on April 10, 2006


A more relevant question might be, why does it have to be pronounced 'etsy' rather than 'ee-tee-see'? Does anyone here remember how silly it sounded to say 'etsy' or how foolish you felt the first time you said 'ee-tee-see' to the guy with the long beard?

Sometimes there just is no 'why'.
posted by quacky at 11:36 PM on April 10, 2006


Sometimes there just is no 'why'.

Fortunately, there is a 'why' in MATLAB:

>> why
Pete wanted it that way.
>> why
I told me to.
>> why
A young kid told me to.

posted by epugachev at 11:48 PM on April 10, 2006


When Dennis Ritchie was asked what he would do diffrerently regarding the birth of Unix, he said "I would put a 'e' in /tmp"

I always thought that was 'creat he wished had an extra e.

A more relevant question might be, why does it have to be pronounced 'etsy' rather than 'ee-tee-see'? Does anyone here remember how silly it sounded to say 'etsy' or how foolish you felt the first time you said 'ee-tee-see' to the guy with the long beard?

I always pronounced it 'et-seck', from the way you would say 'etcetera'. Of course, you actually start 'etcetera' with 'et-set' but if you tried to say 'etset etset etset' the words would all blur together. On the other hand, if you actually tried to say 'et-seck et-seck et-seck' rather then just think you'd find it rather difficult as well.

Anyway, this guy at work used to pronounce it 'et-see' and it drove me nuts. He was also one of those people who pronounced 'char' as 'care'.
posted by delmoi at 12:22 AM on April 11, 2006


Of course, you actually start 'etcetera' with 'et-set'

This is the way I first pronounced it, and despite trying to switch to 'et-see', what I still hear in my head when I type it today.
posted by epugachev at 12:34 AM on April 11, 2006


I seem to have picked up the 'right' pronunciation by osmosis... I didn't have any Unix people around to learn from, but it's been "et see" for me for as long as I can remember.

Maybe it was in a book or something.
posted by Malor at 1:42 AM on April 11, 2006


what really gets me is when you see crap like /usr/local/etc

Actually, this makes more sense than /usr/etc.

In linux /home is home. In BSD et al it's /usr/home, with a symlink pointed to /home. I think this makes sense in that

/usr/home
/usr/local

are all within /usr. home on the root seemed to always stick out of place, and then I used FreeBSD and it all seemed to fit together a little nicer. Except when cross-compiling.

That said, I use the /home symlink because it's faster. This is all really personal preference, because there's no perfect way to organize all the shit in UNIX-like systems. I'm sure one of you will have some synapse completely spasm because I said something that you disagree with in regards to system architecture, and now you're going to reply with something equally subjective and unimportant.

And for the record, vocally saying any sort of UNIX directory structure just sounds stupid, no matter how you say it.
posted by cellphone at 1:52 AM on April 11, 2006


Uh, doorsnake, "tar" is "tape archive".
posted by krisjohn at 3:07 AM on April 11, 2006


It had never occurred to me, prior to this moment, that anybody cared what spoken directory names sound like.
posted by I Love Tacos at 3:36 AM on April 11, 2006


My recollection is also that older Unix systems actually had binaries in /etc, e.g., /etc/ifconfig, /etc/netstat, /etc/rmt, and so on. I'm probably recalling from the middle BSD era here, either 2.9 or 4.2 or so (mid 1980s).

Not just BSD. I know that old AT&T variants also had net commands in /etc. I still type /etc/ping out of habit sometimes (which no longer works). It was lifted from BSD and plunked into /etc in the mid-80s. Netstat has always been in /usr/bin in my old Sys V world, tho. *shrugs*

It had never occurred to me, prior to this moment, that anybody cared what spoken directory names sound like.

If you worked in a software environment, you would find that you need to discuss directory names and special keyboard symbols frequently. I have actually heard people argue about the acceptability of calling the "^" symbol hat instead of caret.

I've always used (and heard) et-see and I always assumed it stood for etcetera.
posted by Lame_username at 5:30 AM on April 11, 2006


It matters when you work with other people in the same room (i.e. communicate verbally).

How about a hash / pound / number-sign debate?

chmod?
posted by intermod at 5:36 AM on April 11, 2006


The oldest versions of Unix only had room for 3 letters, so "bin", "tmp" and "etc" were the best names available. (This had something to do with 18-bit CPU words, which could hold 3 6-bit characters)

All the original programs (ls, df, cp, and so on) were called with two letter names, because the third letter was "*" which indicated the executable bit. This is still shown today when you use 'ls -F'.

OK, that was all a lie.
posted by jepler at 6:11 AM on April 11, 2006


intermod: ITYM octothorpe.
posted by aberrant at 7:30 AM on April 11, 2006


The one that I wish they had chosen differently is /usr/, which I always read as "user" (they don't like e's) when it is apparently supposed to be "unix system resources". Yuck.
posted by smackfu at 8:16 AM on April 11, 2006


I love hearing the old wizards pronounce /etc as "etsy", and /usr as "ooozer", and "whack" instead of "return"... but when they pronounce scp as "skippy".. well, that's just whack.
posted by rajbot at 8:24 AM on April 11, 2006


I thought "whack" was a forward slash...
posted by Good Brain at 8:38 AM on April 11, 2006


This Bell Labs History of UNIX claims that much of the garbled nature of how the UNIX filesystem got named was due to some poor Bell Labs dictation service employee butchering all of the acronyms that the designers were using.
At the end of the discussion, Canaday picked up the phone, dialed into a Bell Labs dictation service, and read in his notes. "The next day these notes came back," Thompson said, "and all the acronyms were butchered, like 'inode' and 'eyen.'"

Butchered or not, the notes became the basis for UNIX. Each researcher received a copy of the notes, "...and they became the working document for the file system," Thompson said.
posted by popechunk at 8:40 AM on April 11, 2006


"misc" was too long, so "etc" is the next best thing in meaning.
posted by Nicholas West at 8:59 AM on April 11, 2006


The wikipedia article is about a standardization effort that began when UNIX was already entering middle age. /etc has been around since at least V7"

The System V machine I worked on had it.

And yep, anyone who has ever used a paper terminal (a keyboard and a printer, no monitor) has a real appreciation for short path names.

intermod writes "How about a hash / pound / number-sign debate?"

It's an octothorpe.
posted by Mitheral at 9:14 AM on April 11, 2006


I've never heard anyone say et-see. It's always been eckt-set, in Scotland at least.
posted by bonaldi at 9:19 AM on April 11, 2006


Everyone I've ever heard (US, including many english-speaking coders from India and Korea) says et-see. Never heard eckt-set before.
posted by ook at 9:45 AM on April 11, 2006


Does anyone here remember how silly it sounded to say 'etsy' or how foolish you felt the first time you said 'ee-tee-see' to the guy with the long beard?

Too funny, because you couldn't have described my first experience with it any more succinctly. My first network admin was Grizzly Adams, the chaotic-neutral Magic-user barbarian... and that's probably too much of a compliment.

To add to the list... we say "bang" for the ! symbol and "splat" for the * symbol (although the latter, not nearly as often).
posted by Witty at 9:56 AM on April 11, 2006


>> "How about a hash / pound / number-sign debate?"
> It's an octothorpe.

Yeah, but it's pronounced "sharp"...
posted by rajbot at 10:06 AM on April 11, 2006


"I know that old AT&T variants also had net commands in /etc."

IRIX was like that too. I think it still is. Last time I used it was 6.5.14...
posted by drstein at 10:29 AM on April 11, 2006


One of my favorite old cartoons has the first panel with cavemen huddled around a fire saying "awk, grep, etc, yacc" and the second panel has the nerds huddled around the terminal saying "awk, grep, etc, yacc".
posted by JackFlash at 11:53 AM on April 11, 2006


Uh, doorsnake, "tar" is "tape archive".

Well, I know that, but it's not necessarily the most obvious name if you don't know what tar is supposed to do ("tar? Like what the streets are paved with?"). The sequence "tar cfB - .", for example, is just gibberish if you don't already know what it does.

FWIW, I've always said /etc as "et-see" and /usr as "user"; the greater debate is "root" and "route": "root" ("rute") is the super-user, and "route" ("rawt" or "rout") is how packets get from one place to another. I once worked with somebody who said them both the same way, and there was occasional discord. He had some lame excuse about dictionaries, but I know how it's really supposed to be.

To add to the list... we say "bang" for the ! symbol [...]

Naw, everybody knows that "!" is pronounced "dammit!" As in telling vi to ":q!" ("quit, dammit!"). For the non-Unix geeks in the audience, the vi editor won't let you quit with unsaved changes unless you give it the dammit option. Similarly, it won't write over a read-only file without being similarly persuaded.
posted by doorsnake at 12:09 PM on April 11, 2006


I think the "non-Unix geeks" got scared off quite a few comments ago.

I've always heard/used "et-see" for /etc.

What about /var/www? I've heard "double-you double-you double-you", "dub dub dub", and (my favorite) "wu-wu". I can't really capture the last one like, but it's kind of like the first syllable in "wumpus", repeated twice.
posted by heresiarch at 2:17 PM on April 11, 2006


It's funny - I've long been a unix geek in isolation: I never had people around me that I could literally speak to about unix/linux stuff, so I got everything all wrong, I think.

I always "pronounced" (in my head) /etc as "ets"

initially I pronounced fstab as "eff-stab" but I think I got that one right now ("eff-ess-tab")

chmod as "chuh-mod"

I can't think of any others, but I'm sure there are more that I've been mangling.

As far as "www" I have also heard "triple-dub" but it bugs me somehow.
posted by dammitjim at 2:48 PM on April 11, 2006


i pronounce etc et-zet-tick.

i mostly just try not to say it out loud.

i also regularly will say "insoMANIA" rather than "insomNIA", and also "ISEL-TON" instead of "aisle-TON" (for isleton, ca), so it's just pretty much a given that i'm retarded.

the only reason i post this is i'm hoping someone else might pronounce it this way, making us MEMBERS OF A SECRET GENIUS CLUB rather than myself simply being the isolated idiot.
posted by fishfucker at 2:51 PM on April 11, 2006


What about /var/www? I've heard "double-you double-you double-you", "dub dub dub", and (my favorite) "wu-wu".

Surely that should be wuh-wuh-wuh. I mean, people don't really leave out an entire wuh, do they?

I sometimes refer to "www" as "hextupleyou" when I want to be a smartass.

One that bugs me is radmind, which is apparently pronounced r-admin-d (i.e. remote admin daemon) rather than rad-mind as it is spelled. Kind of like the f-stab thing. A cow-orker of mine used to refer to a newsrc as "new source" rather than "news record."
posted by kindall at 4:11 PM on April 11, 2006


One would think that "wuh-wuh-wuh" would be correct, but this person insisted that "wuh-wuh" was what they meant. I think it had something to do with the combination - that it was the double "ww" conjunction that created the "wuh" sound, not the single letter, and so three 'w's meant two "wuh"'s.

(And yeah, "wuh" seems like the right transliteration to me. Good call.)
posted by heresiarch at 7:24 PM on April 11, 2006


I pronounce etc as "etcetera," and I have a beard. Of course, I don't pronounce tmp as "temporary," just "temp."

I have to be careful not to pronounce ! as "bang," so few people understand that one.) # is so "hash."
posted by The Monkey at 7:39 PM on April 11, 2006


In my humble world:

/etc is "et-see"

chmod is "change-mod" (descriptive that way)

#! is "shebang" (though I might start thinking of it as "she-dammit!" as doorsnake said)

/var/www is pronounced just like it sounds.... "var www" (as in the way web addresses are spoken)

Boring, I know.
posted by edverb at 9:04 PM on April 11, 2006


As long as this thread has gone completely off the tracks, I thought of another one that really weirded me out: I had a PI who said "tee-seesh," whereas I had always said "tee-see-ess-aich." I was also shocked to hear ".cshrc" pronounced "c-shrock" instead of "dot-see-ess-aich-ar-see."

I've long been a unix geek in isolation

Yes I assume that's the reason there's so much variety in pronunciation. Learning Unix usually isn't a social activity, but instead is often a consequence of social isolation.
posted by epugachev at 12:25 AM on April 12, 2006


I was also shocked to hear ".cshrc" pronounced "c-shrock" instead of "dot-see-ess-aich-ar-see."

Our variety was "see-sha-ar-see".
posted by smackfu at 6:37 AM on April 12, 2006


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