The Elements Of Style: UNIX As Literature

Though I understood how people might be put off by having to remember such willfully obscure utility names like cat and grep, I continued to be puzzled at why they resented typing. Then I realized I could connect the complaint with the scores of “intellectual elite” (as my manager described them) in UNIX shops. The common thread was wordsmithing; a suspiciously high proportion of my UNIX colleagues had already developed, in some prior career, a comfort and fluency with text and printed words. They were adept readers and writers, and UNIX played handily to those strengths. UNIX was, in some sense, literature to them. Suddenly the overrepresentation of polyglots, liberal-arts types, and voracious readers in the UNIX community didn’t seem so mysterious, and pointed the way to a deeper issue: in a world increasingly dominated by image culture (TV, movies, .jpg files), UNIX remains rooted in the culture of the word.

UNIX programmers express themselves in a rich vocabulary of system utilities and command-line arguments, along with a flexible, varied grammar and syntax. For UNIX enthusiasts, the language becomes second nature. Once, I overheard a conversation in a Palo Alto restaurant: “there used to be a shrimp-and-pasta plate here under ten bucks. Let me see… cat menu | grep shrimp | test -lt $10…” though not syntactically correct (and less-than-scintillating conversation), a diner from an NT shop probably couldn’t have expressed himself as casually.

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