I'd like to use the ESC key instead of C-g for keyboard-quit. My naïve approach to just do

(define-key global-map (kbd "ESC") 'keyboard-quit)

does not work. ESC is still a prefix key and pressing it does not call keyboard-quit.

  • 1
    You may interested in this related thread - I used that solution for about a year until I got used to C-g and ESC-ESC-ESC: How to use <escape> (conditionally) as a modifier key stackoverflow.com/a/20036348/2112489 The answer by Stefan in that related thread is the same concept that used by the universal-argument with the universal-argument-map.
    – lawlist
    Commented Aug 14, 2015 at 22:03

4 Answers 4


You can do (define-key key-translation-map (kbd "ESC") (kbd "C-g")). I did the same a long time ago and had no problems.

Edit to improve the answer according to the comments:

If you want to keep the ESC key functionality, you can do

(define-key key-translation-map (kbd "C-<escape>") (kbd "ESC"))

One thing to note is that if Emacs hangs you still have to use the C-g key for some reason, but that happens rarely.

  • 1
    @EmacsUser Even if I never hit ESC while using emacs?
    – Geier
    Commented Aug 15, 2015 at 5:35
  • 1
    @EmacsUser: So? As of now, I never press ESC once, let alone twice or three times. I'm not going to miss it.
    – Geier
    Commented Aug 15, 2015 at 5:46
  • 3
    @EmacsUser I'm not saying that this is the correct answer and that I want to use it, I just want to understand what's wrong with it. The whole "in the future, you won't be able to press ESC twice" doesn't affect me at all. If you tell me under what conditions I might get into an infinite loop with this and why, that would be really insightful.
    – Geier
    Commented Aug 15, 2015 at 6:23
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    @Geier I used this remapping for a long time and never have encountered any problems with it. The only thing is that if emacs hangs you have to press C-g to unhang it, the ESC remapping dosn't work in this case.
    – clemera
    Commented Aug 15, 2015 at 10:00
  • 2
    @EmacsUser I never had a use case for ESC so this didn't bother me. But if you need it you can do another translation, for example (define-key key-translation-map (kbd "C-<escape>") (kbd "ESC"))
    – clemera
    Commented Aug 15, 2015 at 10:11

My advice would be to leave ESC alone, because it is a special key.

By default, Emacs uses ESC (ASCII 27) as the meta-prefix-key. From the Elisp Manual:

‘esc-map’ is the global keymap for the prefix key. Thus, the global definitions of all meta characters are actually found here. This map is also the function definition of ‘ESC-prefix’.


Instead, meta characters are regarded for purposes of key lookup as sequences of two characters, the first of which is ESC (or whatever is currently the value of ‘meta-prefix-char’). Thus, the key ‘M-a’ is internally represented as ‘ESC a’, and its global binding is found at the slot for ‘a’ in ‘esc-map’.

So to use ESC for something else you would need to set meta-pefix-key to something else, and also bind some other key to ESC-prefix. There may be other changes required as well -- I've never tried this.

For more on meta-prefix-char, see Functions for Key Lookup in the Elisp manual.

  • 1
    +1. Do not remove the binding of ESC. Bind another key to keyboard-quit, if you like. And be aware that ESC ESC ESC already gives you the escape behavior you want -- see the Emacs manual, node Quitting.
    – Drew
    Commented Aug 14, 2015 at 21:08
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    Setting the meta-prefix-char to nil on OSX will not disable it from being a prefix key -- it will only separate it from the meta key. On OSX with a graphical version of Emacs, I like to have the escape key separated from the meta key -- I set (setq meta-prefix-char nil) at the outset of my initialization so that all subsequently loaded libraries understand that is what I want. This gives me the ability to use the meta key as prefix key, and the escape key as a prefix key. The esc-map is defined at the C-source code level within keymap.c. It is meant to be used as a prefix key.
    – lawlist
    Commented Aug 14, 2015 at 21:56
  • @lawlist Interesting - so do you then map meta to be the esc-map prefix to preserve the default M- bindings?
    – glucas
    Commented Aug 14, 2015 at 22:15
  • I think this is the relevant setting on OSX: (setq ns-alternate-modifier 'meta), which makes meta the left alt key on the Apple keyboard. I like to use the right alt key to create unicode characters using OSX default settings: (setq ns-right-alternate-modifier 'none) -- to insert Spanish characters, paragraph symbols, etc. When building --with-ns, both the left and right alt keys are set to meta. The default setting ties the escape key to the meta key on OSX using the meta-prefix-char, which is 27 as you stated.
    – lawlist
    Commented Aug 14, 2015 at 22:48
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    Use emacs, they say. It's extensible, they say. You don't have to adjust to it, it adjusts to you, they say. That is, it only adjusts to you if you like to escape a situation by pressing ESC three times. Because someone in the past thought that ESC is such a unheard-of key (it's only on the top left corner of every keyboard) that he better tie it up with the Meta key :-( .
    – Geier
    Commented Aug 15, 2015 at 5:42

Lovely answer over here: https://superuser.com/a/945245/624661


You can use this in your Emacs init file:

;;; esc always quits
(define-key minibuffer-local-map [escape] 'minibuffer-keyboard-quit)
(define-key minibuffer-local-ns-map [escape] 'minibuffer-keyboard-quit)
(define-key minibuffer-local-completion-map [escape] 'minibuffer-keyboard-quit)
(define-key minibuffer-local-must-match-map [escape] 'minibuffer-keyboard-quit)
(define-key minibuffer-local-isearch-map [escape] 'minibuffer-keyboard-quit)
(global-set-key [escape] 'keyboard-quit)

You want to bind [escape], not (kbd "ESC"), as the bindings referenced by Ole show. In stock, this will work only if emacs frames in a window system. I think this is worth a bit of explanation.

(kdb "ESC") means actually the ASCII control character ESC, and as glucas mentioned, you certainly don't want to remap this one. But Esc is not ASCII ESC: it is symbol escape, at least in a graphical environment. How does it occur that binding (kbd "ESC") affects Esc then? This happens because emacs translates escape to ESC if there is no available binding for escape. Kind of a fallback if you wish (which is implemented by the means of local-function-key-map if you're interested in such things).

Thus, when you bind [escape], you're safe and don't have to worry about ESC; apart from your own bindings, you just have to augment the keymaps that say ESC when they mean [escape].

Hmm... well, almost. Why don't these maps use [escape] at the first time? Because this won't work in a terminal. If you want your Esc work on a such a device, you'll have at the very least to customize your terminal before.

The story of the terminal is reported in another post: How to bind C-[ for real?. What you have to do is tell the terminal to send some custom sequence when Esc is pressed, then map this sequence to [escape] at an early input stage in emacs (the input-decode-map).

Hope this helps.

  • This did not help me to solve the problem, but it helped a lot understanding it. Commented Aug 25, 2020 at 9:33

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