What is GIMP Software?

The name GIMP is an acronym that stands for GNU Image Manipulation Program. It is a software program that is designed to create and edit raster images – though surprisingly enough, not only images of gnus. In this case, GNU refers to a free software movement rather than an antelope. 

GIMP is a powerful image editor designed to provide professional-level editing tools for the Linux environment at zero cost, although it was eventually released for both Windows and macOS platforms. The project is under active development and regularly releases new versions.

The first public release of GIMP was made available way back in 1996, although the beginnings of the GNU free software movement had taken place even earlier at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab in 1983 when Richard Stallman announced the project’s founding on several Usenet lists.

Since then, GIMP has gone through a huge number of revisions and even total restructuring. The development of GIMP took on a life of its own when large portions of the code written specifically for GIMP were adopted for use as general-purpose Linux GUI development toolkits (GTK).

If you want to learn more about the history of GIMP, including some genuinely ancient history, there’s some interesting (and extensive) reading available on the official About page

Sorry, gnus, no room for you here. (Image credit: sutirta budiman)

What is GIMP Used for?

GIMP is a raster image editor, which means that it can create and edit pixel-based images. It can perform everything from basic edits like cropping and brightness adjustment to more complex editing tasks including clone stamping/healing and image liquify tools. 

GIMP’s brush-based tools support the design and creation of custom brushes with unique parameters, allowing you to recreate a wide range of physical media in digital format. If you don’t want to make your own, you can check out my list of the best GIMP brushes here

For those of you who are very precision-minded, GIMP also provides full support for color-managed workflows – but only as long as you’re using an RGB colorspace. GIMP cannot properly open or process CMYK images without the use of a specialized plugin.

Scripting and Plugins

One of the coolest (fine, also most useful) features of GIMP is its ability to add new features using downloadable plugins. These are entirely customizable to your needs, covering a range of feature expansions from RAW image processing to Photoshop-style content-aware scaling. 

(Be sure to check out my list of the best GIMP plugins article!)

If you’re already comfortable working with scripting languages, you can even write your own code for GIMP using the Python language, or automate tasks using the Script-Fu system, which is based on the Scheme language.

What’s All This About Antelopes?

It’s mostly just me (and a few others) poking fun at some of the naming conventions used in the free software movement. Writers will be writers, after all. There is a type of antelope that lives across African savannahs known as a wildebeest, also known as a “gnu” (pronounced “new”). 

The ‘G’ in GIMP’s acronym stands for GNU, which is a strange piece of language called a ‘recursive acronym’, the sort of joke that plays well with parts of the hardcore software developer crowd but goes a bit over my head – or maybe just past it. 

GNU stands for “GNU’s Not Unix!”, and the GNU in that explanation of the first acronym also stands for “GNU’s Not Unix!”, and the GNU in that explanation of the second acronym also stands for “GNU’s Not Unix!” – and so on, forever. 

Basically, it’s an acronym that contains itself, so deconstructing it causes a loop that repeats forever. As I said, it’s a very inside joke, so don’t feel bad if it doesn’t work for you. Apparently, it was a very common practice among hackers in the 70s and 80s, if you want to read more on it.

GNU Free Software

It’s hard to talk about GIMP without understanding the reasons why so many software developers would freely donate huge quantities of their time and energy to work on a project that can’t possibly make them any money when their skills are clearly so valuable. 

In the late 70s and 80s when the developmental foundation stones of personal computing were being put into place, several programmers (nobody called them developers then) realized that there was a serious danger behind companies owning the rights to all popular software.

This led to the establishment of the GNU free software movement by Richard Stallman along with growing support, and the eventual creation of widely-used legal software licensing agreements that support and protect a huge amount of the free software available today.

It’s also important to note that when they use the word ‘free’, they’re thinking about liberty, instead of price – even though the software is also usually provided without any monetary exchange. The GNU Project spells this out quite clearly on their website –  and remember, GNU is the G in GIMP:

  • The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help others (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

Source: The GNU Project.

I don’t have the space to cover the whole open-source movement, but that gives you a bit of an overview of the philosophy behind the GNU Project, and so also behind the development of GIMP.

Wait A Minute…

We should probably get this out of the way: yes, in North America at least, there is an unfortunate number of other non-acronym definitions of the word “gimp”, ranging from the ableist to the NSFW, but the software program is simply awkwardly named rather than trying to be rude. 

I don’t know for sure, but I would guess that they’ve gotten a lot of flak over the name. So from now on, we’ll just say no more about it 😉 

About Thomas Boldt
I’ve been working with digital images since the year 2000 or so, when I got my first digital camera. I've tried many image editing programs. GIMP is a free and powerful software, but not exactly user-friendly until you get comfortable with it, and I wanted to make the learning process easier for you here.

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  • Gary Rathbun

    Thomas, I just want to thank you and your team for this great resource (the whole site, not just this page). I’m very much a beginner at photo editing, having mostly just done tedious manual edits with a few basic painting tools and fumbling with the sliders in the Color menu. Looking through the titles of your tutorials, I’m thinking there are a lot of capabilities I never imagined, and easier ways to do what I want. I’ve bookmarked this site and will enjoy diving in to your tutorials and experimenting.
    My OS of choice is Linux, so Adobe’s programs aren’t an option. I really appreciate you taking the time and trouble to demystify GIMP even though it’s not your photo editor of choice (as stated in your GIMP vs Photoshop comparison.)