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Just speculation, but perhaps it's because it "wraps" the kernel. ie. the kernel's shell...

That was always my understanding. In older mainframe operating systems, the command interpreter was more integral to the OS. In Unix, it's just a process. Its function is to run programs for the user, so it is in some sense a shell around the OS seen by the user.

That's the way I see it and to extend the analogy a bit further Unix, et el. are like a hermit crab that can trade one shell for another if there is a good reason to do so.

Yup, I've always thought it provides sort of an "airlock" generic land between userspace and kernel-land, where people can do things like send signals to processes and also do stuff like dump the contents of a file for easy viewing.

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