You Say Potahto

I had a discussion—not really heated just sort of warmish—with a co-worker a few months ago over the correct pronunciation of the common Unix directory name “var.”

According to him, and he is a long time Unix admin who has worked with a lot of other Unix admins and has been around the whole scene probably three to four times longer than I have, the correct pronunciation rhymes with “bar.” For the sake of the argument I’ll spell that particular pronunciation as “vahr.”

My point in the discussion was that it was stupid to pronounce it vahr because no one pronounces the extention of that obviously abbreviated word “vahr-iable,” they say “variable” where the “var” in that word rhymes with “fair” (spelled out as “vair” here). My logic extended that the correct pronunciation of the directory should be “vair.”

My co-discusser then fell back on the weak argument that it didn’t matter what made more sense, only that he had never heard it pronounced “vair” by anyone other than me so if I wanted to avoid looking a fool I needed to start pronouncing it correctly, where correct in this case was equivalent to popular.

Later I came up with an alternate extention to the “var” abbreviation where it could actually stand for “variety” (the var/ directory often holds a slew of assorted junk) in which case vahr would be a more appropriate pronunciation. But today in class I noted during a discussion of database data types that the instructor used a variation of the “var” pronunciation in relation to the “VARCHAR” type.

To me, that has always been pronounced “vair-care” since it clearly stood for “variable characters.” Our instructor was pronouncing it “vahr-char” as in the supposed correct pronunciation for the Unix directory and the verb meaning “to burn the surface of; scorch.” Even if we did the same variable/variety swap for the “var” in this instance, there is no way anyone pronounces is “Char-acter” with the heavy “ch” sound like in “chop.” So why would you pronounce it that way in abbreviated form? But no one seemed to bat an eye at his choice of pronunciation so I’m now wondering if that’s just the way everyone else says it.

The whole thing started me thinking about pronunciations based on written-word exposure because the reason most of this came up was that I learned about all these things from reading online documentation and not from being taught in a lecture/classroom environment so whatever pronunciation came out in my head as I first learned of these things is how it “ought” to sound. It’s like Gin who saw a street sign for Carnegie and read “Cahrn-ee-edge” which sounds very similar to “Carnage” rather than the correct pronunciation which is “Cahrn-ih-ge.” Now, even though she knows how it “ought” to be she still thinks “Cahrn-ee-edge” in her head.

Computer terms I think are most commonly introduced to people with those text-to-mind pronunciations which may be why I find these discrepancies in vocalizations in that field more often. In fact I’ve started to see some software or technology websites that include pronounced acronyms or new nomenclature references to help people sound out their product or technology names to avoid confusion later. For example I haven’t seen it in a while but there used to be a lot of sites that described how to pronounce “Linux” (lih-nucks) after it became apparent that tons of people were misreading it as “line-icks,” probably because it was invented by Linus Torvalds and people just assumed.

Linky Linky

  • There is a sweet OS X Terminal app floating around that mimics old 70s glass terminals with screen warp, amber text and brightness glitches and everything. Pretty cool even for a relative n00b like myself who didn’t ever have to use any of that hooey. I did use the old Apple IIs though and they had those nasty green screens with the wicked burn in. Mmm… fifth grade computer class.
  • Here’s a pretty fascinating article comparing to a competitor. I never used the other site mentioned, but the article is interesting anyway.
  • Also, if you’re into the whole Linux thing you should check out this site that lets you build a custom Linux ISO from several distributions. I’ve heard the Ubuntu installer is about as foolproof as Linux has ever been, but it does look nice for getting Debian rockin’. Then again, I’ll grant you that I haven’t even used that in several versions because I’ve been all “FreeBSD this, OS X that” for a couple years. Still, the installer back in the day was bellbottom pants, so unless it got an absurd amount of attention this has to be an improvement.


Dumb Sharks. I stayed up stupid late last night watching the nailbiter against the Stars, and they had the Stars pretty much reeling in Overtime (where they absolutely had to win it because if it came to a shootout they were toast) only to watch them blow it with like 30 seconds left. Then I had to go to bed all grumpy. I hate that.

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