I've been hired to build a cremation urn, which includes an engraved plaque with the name of the deceased, dates, a quote, etc., and the client has asked for the letters "GNU" to be included on the plaque. Of course I'm happy to oblige, but I'm unfamiliar with this symbol, and want to make sure I depict it correctly. I'm also just curious as well.

I believe the client was raised Catholic (thus the tag), but it could be from anywhere. My hunch is it's maybe an acronym of a Latin phrase, but that's just a guess, and I haven't been able to find out anything on my own.

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    Urban Dictionary Link
    – Nigel J
    Sep 17, 2022 at 22:48
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    @NigelJ Ha! I'm so sorry. I had no idea the stated "spiritual symbol that has to be on there" would be a Terry Pratchett reference. Sep 17, 2022 at 22:52
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    @NigelJ That would appear to be an answer. Sep 18, 2022 at 9:01

3 Answers 3


Discworld reference applicable to memorial

As @NigelJ found in the Urban Dictionary, GNU refers to a telegraphic code that Sir Terry Pratchett invented in his Discworld comic fantasy book series:

  • G: send the message on
  • N: do not log the message
  • U: turn the message around at the end of the line and send it back again

so that the book character's son's name John Dearheart is memorialized forever as long as the "clacks towers" (a telegraphic device) is still in use. Chapter 4 prologue of Going Postal (a book in the series) says:

A man is not dead while his name is still spoken

(Source: GNU Terry Pratchett Home page)


As for the rendering, the computer geek fans of Discworld seem to have established a convention right after Terry's death in 2015 to memorialize him: "GNU Terry Pratchett": GNU <first name> <last name> :

  • See a Jan 2020 reddit post title in r/discworld: I don't understand the "GNU Terry Pratchett" reference that elicited the highest voted comment quoting a March 2015 The Guardian article Terry Pratchett's name lives on in 'the clacks' with hidden web code:

    Pratchett’s 33rd Discworld novel, Going Postal, tells of the creation of an internet-like system of communication towers called “the clacks”. When John Dearheart, the son of its inventor, is murdered, a piece of code is written called “GNU John Dearheart” to echo his name up and down the lines. “G” means that the message must be passed on, “N” means “not logged”, and “U” means the message should be turned around at the end of a line. (This was also a realworld tech joke: GNU is a free operating system, and its name stands, with recursive geek humour, for “GNU’s not Unix”.) The code causes Dearheart’s name to be repeated indefinitely throughout the system, because: “A man is not dead while his name is still spoken.”

    What better way to remember the beloved inventor of this fictional system, then, than “GNU Terry Pratchett”?

  • Users of Reddit (and users of Wordpress plugins) even embed "GNU Terry Pratchett" among the HTTP Response header (the "envelope" of a website's response to your browser) when accessing any page within the r/discworld subreddit in this post-telegraph world, aka. the Internet (source Wikipedia). To my surprise, it is still in effect today! I verified it using a tool like Fiddler / Postman / Curl (which you can also do using your favorite browser's built-in debugger): HTTP Response header of r/discworld URLs

The original meaning of 'GNU'

Terry Pratchett seems to borrow Richard Stallman's 1983 invention of the recursive acronym "GNU" = "GNU's Not Unix", the brand name of Free Software Foundation's software projects (see also Wikipedia).

A brief background for non-geeks: at the time, many critical software (such as an operating system, most notably Unix) needed a very expensive source code license when a programmer wanted to fix/extend the software at the source-code level because the official owner couldn't adapt fast enough to the rapidly changing computing hardware and computing needs. The user / programmer would need to submit a bug report and could have waited weeks/months before a patch is released. By modifying the source code themselves, they could fix not only a bug but also extend the functionality of the software and share it with others (an expression of Christian love, in fact, when proper copyright laws have been observed). "Source code" is the human readable version of a series of binary computer instructions ("executable") written in a computer language.


As @Lesley's post indicates, there is no spiritual reference to Christianity. I would consult your client to verify that Sir Terry Pratchett's Discworld reference is indeed what the deceased and/or the client would have meant, and if so, it's best that the rendering follows Sir Terry Pratchett's fans convention.

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    I have since asked them, and they confirmed, your reference is correct. Thanks to you, with special mention to @NigelJ for pointing it out in a comment as well. Apparently it's spiritual for them! Sep 20, 2022 at 1:17
  • @type_outcast I'm glad you're able to resolve this. Living across the pond, I first hear about Discworld and Sir Terry Pratchett only today. It turns out he's a humanist atheist of sort, but a good and honorable man who has a real talent for humorous satire, which made me want to read his books. Googling around, I found a good article about Discworld from Christian perspective here, by a C.S. Lewis scholar, who actually enjoyed reading his books and who called him a "mythopoeic master", similar to C.S. Lewis. Sep 20, 2022 at 2:24
  • I agree with you and Peter Turner that this question is not about Christianity, although it is about death. +1
    – Lesley
    Sep 21, 2022 at 6:33

Lesely and Grateful Disciple are probably correct in the no reference to Christianity reference:

Here's a pretty decent list of acronyms on EWTN.com in case you ever come upon a similar case again


and there's a wiki for latin abbreviations:


I didn't find it in there so... GORK?


I have no idea if the letters GNU have anything to do with Christian faith but I did find this information:

Apart from the Gnu being a large South African antelope, the GNU acronym is the name of the Free Software Foundation's project to develop a free UNIX-like operating system. GNU is a recursive acronym for “GNU’s not Unix”. Richard Matthew Stallman launched the GNU Project in September 1983 to write a Unix-like computer operating system composed entirely of free software. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Stallman

Good News Unlimited is a Christian mission outreach. “GNU doesn’t represent a church; we simply represent the essential truth of the Gospel with no boundaries or limitations.” https://goodnewsunlimited.com/

GNU Atheist: A term used by atheists online to ridicule the idea that there is such a thing as a "New Atheist." Those Gnu Atheists are so militant in their hatred of religion! https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Gnu%20Atheist

MIT Physicist Ian Hutchinson Calls Gnu Atheists “Militant” and Wants Greater “Respect” Directed Toward Religion and Faith https://santitafarella.wordpress.com/2011/03/01/mit-physicist-ian-hutchinson-calls-gnu-atheists-militant-and-wants-greater-respect-directed-toward-religion-and-faith/

Before you start to engrave the urn with those letters, perhaps you should check to ensure that you have the correct letters and whether there should be a full stop between each of the three letters.

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    I'm in IT software development, so naturally Stallman's GNU came first to mind, but in OP context @NigelJ 's link seems the most appropriate one (for a cremated ash urn) compared to other possibilities you list in your answer. Sep 19, 2022 at 3:59
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    @GratefulDisciple - Yes, I don't doubt that Nigel's link to Sir Terry Pratchett and Discworld is the most appropriate answer to this question. I've never read any of Pratchett's work and am unlikely to do so in the future, farce and political satire not appearing anywhere on my radar. Under-developed sense of humour, no doubt. Did you know that the three-letter acronymn GNU also stands for Gender Neutral Unit? Who would have thought it? Thank you for your kind and considered comment.
    – Lesley
    Sep 19, 2022 at 6:30

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