Below voluminously explained the context of the question stated in the question title:

I have started to use Emacs very intensively some days ago and are still bumping into doing things the wrong way. The main reason for the confusion is in my eyes the weird and misleading wording describing the components of the Emacs GUI-interface which differs from the common-sense understanding used by for example the Emacs underlying GTK.

A best example of what I am talking about are the words "WINDOW", "FRAME" and "TAB":

I have in between found out that what in other GUI-applications/interfaces and desktops is called 'window' is in Emacs described as a 'frame' right?

So if I want a new window (i.e another Emacs instance running in its own GUI with a title bar, menu, toolbar, minimize/maximize/close icons) and create one in Emacs using the Menu item "New Window Below" or "New Window on Right", I will get what in all to me known other GUI-applications is called a "multiline text input/output" element/widget embedded in a frame (called in Emacs a 'tab') shown in a window. In other words if I want actually a new 'window' in the common-sense of this word, I have to click in the 'File' menu: 'New Frame'.

Another possible cause of confusion are the concepts behind combinations of the words "TAB", "BUFFER" and "WINDOW".

The Emacs concept of a 'buffer' covers the underlying textual data which can not only be shown and/or edited in one or more windows, but also can stay hidden/invisible in the background. An Emacs-buffer lives an own life not depending on being shown anywhere. What have initially confused me is that after I have killed an 'Emacs buffer' (in order to close a tab) this affected all other tabs showing this buffer in their 'Emacs windows'.

So if I create in the Emacs GUI a new 'Emacs tab' I actually create in terms of the common-sense language a 'frame' which can hold multiple 'multiline text input/output' elements/widgets called 'Emacs windows' which then can visualize content of one of the available 'Emacs buffers'.

If the reason for this way of naming the GUI elements is of historical nature, why does Emacs evolving to modern new versions still stick to the old naming conventions instead of breaking with them and adapt to the changed reality?

  • 5
    Don't know. But if you think these concepts are difficult to distinguish, the post What's the difference between a buffer, a file, a window, and a frame? will be helpful to you.
    – shynur
    Mar 22, 2023 at 15:37
  • 1
    If you decided to undertake a project of renaming the terminology which has been consistent for 40+ years, you would (necessarily) become utterly familiar with the Emacs terminology long before you reached the point of being capable of implementing your mad scheme. At which point you wouldn't need it. Such changes would cause immense pain for Emacs users over a long period of time, whereas you will be familiar with it all in a matter of weeks at worst. Yes, the terms are different. It's fine. You'll get used to it.
    – phils
    Mar 23, 2023 at 14:04
  • 1
    Your question is also a bit like asking why the English haven't changed all of their spelling to match the "changed reality" of American English. No one would dispute that communication in English would be simpler if everyone used the same spelling, but it's not going to happen, and most people are not terribly surprised about it. Reality didn't change; some people just named some things differently to some other people.
    – phils
    Mar 23, 2023 at 15:11

2 Answers 2


You are looking at it from the wrong side of history. Before bitmapped graphics devices were in common use, but after we'd moved off hardcopy terminals, the UI of the day was a glass character-cell device, generally 24 rows x 80 columns.

Most programs operated in line-at-a-time mode, but a few elected to treat the screen as an updateable display. Some of those (for example, curses, emacs, ...) elected to offer facilities to split the screen into separate regions. A common name for these regions was 'windows', a reasonably mnemonic word that didn't have many display-related other meanings.

When bitmapped displays showed up, there were analogous ways to regard the physical display as being carved up into different regions. The same name was chosen, and in some software (for example Windows 1.0) the windows were non-overlapping and not draggable. That came later.

In other words, those GUI people were not the original claimants to 'window'.

  • Nice and to me appealing explanation of the roots of the term "window". Yes, Microsoft enforced by unfair means their system on the worldwide market winning against superior other ones (like ATARI with GEM-GUI and Motorola 68000 at the time of Intel and MS-DOS). But there was also a final positive aspect: a world-wide unification of hardware and language terms making international cooperation possible.
    – Claudio
    Mar 23, 2023 at 9:13
  • What I am missing in this answer is explanation of the roots of choosing "frame" as a word to describe the entire shown area with the minimize/maximize/close icons you can move around and resize on the screen/display/monitor.
    – Claudio
    Mar 23, 2023 at 9:19
  • 'Frame' just seems like a natural choice to me, as an English speaker. Here in the eastern US, where houses are made of wood, the first thing after the foundation is the 'frame', a wooden skeleton onto which the rest of the house is constructed. But that's a just-so story so I'm not inclined to add it to the example.
    – guessed
    Mar 23, 2023 at 12:30
  • I would say 'windows' are embedded in 'walls'. A wall is 2D, a house frame 3D. A more suitable association for 'frame' would be in my eyes 'mainframe' ( en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mainframe_computer ) at which 'inside' you look through a 'window' (shown on a terminal display).
    – Claudio
    Mar 23, 2023 at 13:05
  • 1
    It has nothing to do with the word “mainframe”. It has everything to do with the fact that in a house, the windows are hung in a frame. youtube.com/watch?v=CMDcpuB5dsY
    – db48x
    Mar 23, 2023 at 14:13

This seems to be a rant, more than a specific question.

In English, a window frame holds one or more windows - window panes.

That some other applications than Emacs did the wrong thing (or even different things), after Emacs had already done the right thing (a reasonable thing), doesn't produce a Why? justification question for Emacs.

Other than pointing out that Emacs terminology is generally reasonable, the answer is simply "hysterical raisins", i.e., history.

Beyond asking about windows and frames, you go on to talk about other things that have confused you. Complaints (?), not questions. Or if questions then multiple questions -- one question per post, please.

This isn't a discussion site -- it's a Q&A site.

  • This seems to be a rant, more than a specific answer ... The linked content with definition of a window frame when clicked to explain what a window is, shows windows of houses and does not mention GUI-elements of a computer user interfaces at all.
    – Claudio
    Mar 22, 2023 at 18:49
  • There is only one actual question in my question and if mentioning the entire context which inspired the question irritates you more than it helps to understand the background of asking why haven't you stopped reading after the first sentence if you were not interested to see what the context was?
    – Claudio
    Mar 22, 2023 at 19:00
  • Reading your answer I can't get rid of the impression that is tries to provoke a discussion, but ... as you mention yourself This isn't a discussion site -- it's a Q&A site.. The question asks not for an opinion, but for a eventually overseen aspects of the subject. There is always a good reason why it is as it is. Sometimes very hard to clearly see it and even harder to explain. And it is not the fault of the question if it is hard to respond with a reasonable and good answer.
    – Claudio
    Mar 22, 2023 at 21:19
  • 2
    "shows windows of houses..." -- Yes. That is the point. I think maybe what you are missing here is that "windows of houses" is the specific metaphor for which "windows" in computer user interfaces were named. It is not the same word by coincidence.
    – phils
    Mar 23, 2023 at 14:30
  • 1
    @phils: Yes, and as guessed's answer importantly points out, the notion of "window" in computing UI predates web browsers and MS Windows and other window-manager GUI windows. It's as old as the hills.
    – Drew
    Mar 23, 2023 at 16:01

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