The news for gnus

Today’s Rhymes With Orange:

Gnus do inhabit the Serengeti.

I can’t think of gnus without being reminded of Flanders and Swann’s delightful Gnu Song — which you can hear here, along with photos of real-life gnus. The lyrics:

A year ago, last Thursday, I was strolling in the zoo,
When I met a man who thought he knew the lot.
He was laying down the law about the habits of baboons,
And the number of quills a porcupine has got.

So I asked him, “What’s that creature there?”. He answered, “Oh, it’s a h-elk”.
I might have gone on thinking that was true.
If the animal in question hadn’t put that chap to shame,
And remarked, “I h-ain’t a h-elk. I’m a g-nu”.

“I’m a g-nu,
I’m a g-nu,
The g-nicest work of g-nature in the zoo.
I’m a g-nu,
How do you do?
You really ought to k-now w-ho’s w-ho.”

“I’m a g-nu, spelt G-N-U.
I’m g-not a camel or a kangaroo.
So let me introduce,
I’m g-neither man or moose,
Oh, g-know, g-know, g-know,
I’m a g-nu!”

I had taken furnished lodgings down at Rustington-On-Sea,
Whence I travelled on to Ashton-Under-Lime it was actually.
And the second night I stayed there I was wakened from a dream,
Which I’ll tell you all about… some other time.

Among the hunting trophies on the wall above my bed,
Stuffed and mounted, was a face I thought I knew.
A bison? No, it’s not a bison. An okapi? It’s unlikely, really.
Could it be a hartebeest?
When I seemed to hear a voice: “I’m a… g-nu…”

“I’m a g-nu,
A g-nother g-nu!
I wish I could g-nash my teeth at you.
I’m a g-nu,
How do you do?
You really ought to k-now w-ho’s w-ho.”

“I’m a g-nu, spelt G-N-U,
Call me ‘bison’ or ‘okapi’ and I’ll sue.
G-nor am I in the least,
Like that dreadful hartebeest,
Oh, g-no, g-no, g-no…
G-know, g-know, g-know, I’m a g-nu…
G-know, g-know, g-know, I’m a g-nu!

An elaborate play on silent letters in English spelling: “restoring” the G of GNU and GNASH, the K of KNOW, and the W of WHO, with the initial /g/ of /gǝnú/ spilling over onto /n/-initial nicest, nature, neither, not, even know, and, most marvelously, the climactic (a)nother. (Plus “Cockney” initial /h/ in elk and ain’t.)

Then there’s the operating system GNU, with its self-referential acronymic name, standing for GNU is Not Unix. And the GNU-related news software Gnus (Gnus Network User Services). Gnus abound, even on your computer.

(UNG seems to stand for Ultimate Next Generation, with no relation to GNU.)

6 Responses to “The news for gnus”

  1. Ben Zimmer Says:

    Wouldn’t the cartoon caption have been better if it was “The gnu’ed beaches of the Serengeti”? (That’s -ed suffix2 in the OED: “appended to ns. in order to form adjs. connoting the possession or the presence of the attribute or thing expressed by the n.”) Or maybe the cartoonist decided it was more important to get across the similarity to nude to make the pun work.

  2. hilary price Says:

    Hi there! Hilary Price here. Why “gnude” and not “gnu’ed”? Because “gnu’ed” looks funny and will trip people up. You only have less than a second for people to get the joke, so you go with the quickest path to understanding.

    Take care,


  3. Victor Steinbok Says:

    Arnold wrote:

    self-referential acronymic name, standing for GNU is Not Unix.

    The first thing that practically jumped at me as I was reading the post was not all the gnuances, but the word self-referential. That sounded far too linguistic and a bit contrived. I distinctly remember that even in the early day we used to joke that this was the irreducible case of recursion. So the text should have read,

    recursive acronymic name, standing for GNU is Not Unix.

    How to verify that? Why not go to the source

    The only thing we needed in order to start working, was a name. In the community of programmers who shared software in the 1970s, that thought me that Free Software is a good and ethical way of life, we programmed for the joy of it.

    Many of us were students, and many of the rest were paid to do this work, but that was secondary. The main reason we were programming was because it was tremendously fascinating fun. Because we were doing this in a spirit of joy and fun, we had lots of other practices that were designed to have fun. For instance, we would often give our programs funny names or even naughty names – mischievous names. And we had a particular custom which was, when you’re developing a program that is inspired by another program – perhaps compatible with it – you could give your program a name which was a recursive acronym saying that this program is not the other one. It’s a funny way of giving credit to the original program which was an inspiration.
    For instance, in 1975, I developed the first Emacs text editor, an extensible programmable text editor. You could actually re-programme the editor while using it. And this was so attractive that it was imitated about thirty times. And some of them were called “something Emacs”, but there was also Sine, for Sine Is Not Emacs, and Fine, for Fine Is Not Emacs, and Eine, for Eine Is Not Emacs. And Mince, for Mince Is Not Complete Emacs, and version two of Eine was called Zwei, for Zwei Was Eine Initially.

    So you could have lots of fun with recursive acronyms. For lack of any better idea, I looked for a recursive acronym for something- Is Not Unix, but I tried all twenty-six possibilities, but none of them was a word in English, and if it doesn’t have another meaning, it’s not funny. So what was I going to do? Well, I thought, I could make a contraction, and that way I could have a three letter recursive acronym.

    I tried every letter, ANU, BNU, CNU, DNU, ENU, FNU, GNU! Well, gnu was the funniest word in the English language. Given an intelligent, meaningful, specific reason to call something gnu, I could not resist.
    Why is the word gnu used for so much wordplay? Because according to the dictionary, it’s pronounced “noo”. The “g” is silent. And the temptation to say gnu instead of “new” anywhere is almost irresistible to people who like wordplay. There was even a funny song inspired by the word gnu when I was a child. With so much laughter already associated with the word, it was the best possible name for anything.

    However, when it’s the name of our operating system, please do not follow the dictionary. If you talk about the “new” operating system you’ll get people very confused – especially since we’ve been working on it for twenty-three years now, so it’s not new anymore. But it still is and always will be “gnu” [two syllables, like “canoe”], no matter how many people pronounce it “Linux” by mistake.

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