Where did the "wheel" group get its name?

  • The wheel group on *nix computers typically refers to the group with some sort of root-like access. I've heard that on some *nixes it's the group of users with the right to run su, but on Linux that seems to be anyone (although you need the root password, naturally). On Linux distributions I've used it seems to be the group that by default has the right to use sudo; there's an entry in sudoers for them:

    %wheel ALL=(ALL) ALL
    

    But that's all tangential; my actual question is: Why is this group called wheel? I've heard miscellaneous explanations for it before, but don't know if any of them are correct. Does anyone know the actual history of the term?

    I've wondered about this on and off for a long time too. I see some new and not new ideas on where it may have come from. I have read about about TENEX before but that doesn't tell me who came up with the name on that project and why they picked it. So far, I don't see any verifiable references yet and, although it's old, the posting from usenet in 1987 doesn't really qualify as being verified so right now it's still just a bunch of fellow geeks proposing where they believe it came from. One theory I have and it's completely unverifiable but I am wondering if it was a developers last name?

    How is it different from the *admin* group, I wonder?

  • Steven D

    Steven D Correct answer

    10 years ago

    The Jargon File has an answer which seems to agree with JanC.

    wheel: n. [from slang ‘big wheel’ for a powerful person] A person who has an active wheel bit...The traditional name of security group zero in BSD (to which the major system-internal users like root belong) is ‘wheel’...

    A wheel bit is also helpfully defined:

    A privilege bit that allows the possessor to perform some restricted operation on a timesharing system, such as read or write any file on the system regardless of protections, change or look at any address in the running monitor, crash or reload the system, and kill or create jobs and user accounts. The term was invented on the TENEX operating system, and carried over to TOPS-20, XEROX-IFS, and others. The state of being in a privileged logon is sometimes called wheel mode. This term entered the Unix culture from TWENEX in the mid-1980s and has been gaining popularity there (esp. at university sites).

    This theory is backed up by this Usenet posting from Oct 5, 1987: JARGON part 2 of 2

    We all agree! :)

    Big Wheel, Big Cheese, Big Shot (etc) were all slang for an important person in the early and mid 20th century. Some of them are still popular today, others aren't. Big Wheel was an allusion to the wheels on carriages of previous centuries, where more important people would have carriages with larger wheels.

    today, this is represented by the size of ones rims on ones Honda Civic.

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