Given that the variable x contains the numeric representation of the key "Control-Z", say

(setq x ?\C-z), 

one may graphically represent its contents by issuing the command

(char-to-string x), 

producing the usual representation of "Control-Z", namely "^Z". I would like to acheive a similar effect in case x contained the numeric representation of "Meta-Z", namely

(setq x ?\M-z).

However my system represents "Meta-Z" as the number 134217850, and (char-to-string x) now causes the error (wrong-type-argument characterp 134217850). I am aware that the graphical representation of "Meta-Z" is not as standard as for "Control-Z", since the latter is part of the ASCII code while the former isn't, but anything legible, such as "M-Z" would be better than the big number 134217850.

My question is thus: which standard elisp function should I use in order to transform numerical representations of Meta characters into a legible string?

  • 1
    You could try (key-description [?\M-z]) (but it has to be a vector, not a single number).
    – wvxvw
    Nov 5, 2017 at 13:43
  • @wvxvw, thanks very much! Should you decide to turn your comment into an answer, I'd be glad to accept it!
    – Ruy
    Nov 5, 2017 at 17:27

1 Answer 1


Properly speaking, ?\C-z is the read syntax of the character. Internally, the Lisp object is an integer. Nonetheless, characters in strings may have different character codes [2]. In other words, a similar read syntax does not necessarily produce the same Lisp object.

You can see in the following example that the character codes are different: 134217818 and 218.

ELISP> ?\332

Characters inserted in text must be in the range of 0 to 4194303. Extra characters, typed using modifier keys, are used to represent keyboard inputs. [1]

In summary, you cannot use a string (read syntax) to represent a meta character. For a conversion function, look at [3].

(single-key-description ?\M-z)


  • Thanks a lot! Based on your answered, specifically [3], I found exactly what I was looking for: (single-key-description 134217850)
    – Ruy
    Mar 9, 2020 at 0:28

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