I like to use the xclip utility to capture the output of commands on the clipboard. However, when I try to use it with shell-command it seems to hang.

In a "normal" shell I can run a command such as echo "hello world" | xclip -selection clipboard and it will return almost immediately and copy hello world to the clipboard. When I try to run the same command from shell-command the command seems to "hang": the focus stays in the minibuffer and I can't do anything until I cancel the command with C-g. After cancelling the command the text has been copied to the clipboard though.

I'm running emacs 24.4.1 on Debian 8.6

Any idea why the xclip command hangs?

  • use xsel instead
    – chen bin
    Commented Feb 23, 2018 at 5:32

2 Answers 2


xclip has to "hang" around to own the clipboard, as X uses asynchronous clipboards which belong to a process. You should be able to get away with just using async-shell-command, which is bound to M-& by default. Another solution would be to use some clipboard manager instead.

  • 7
    Doing some research on xsel led me to some other information that helped clarify things for me. The way xclip is implemented is that it forks a child to manage the copied data and stdout is kept open. It seems that stdout being kept open is the immediate cause for shell-command not returning. Redirecting stdout to /dev/null (e.g. hello world" | xclip -selection clipboard &> /dev/null) causes shell-command to return immediately as expected.
    – shay
    Commented Feb 23, 2018 at 15:40
  • 2
    This above comment is actually exactly what I needed to find out. Not emacs-specific and a very useful piece of information. Thanks!
    – rosuav
    Commented Sep 25, 2019 at 6:42
  • And, if you xclip call is within a shell script that you call from Emacs, the &> /dev/null must be appended to the shell script call instead of the xclip. Commented May 7, 2021 at 10:43
  • 1
    This first comment should be the accepted answer!
    – margolari
    Commented Feb 7, 2023 at 23:09

Right, Commands such as (shell-command "xclip -selection clipboard -o") hang unless the clipboard has the "right" content either text or image.

As a workaround, you can terminate it by using timeout TIMEOUT.

An example:

When only plain text exists in the clipboard and you use

(shell-command (format "xclip -selection clipboard -t image/png -o > %s" image-file))

to get the plain text saved as an image-file, emacs will hang until you Ctrl-g to terminate it by force.

Adding Timeout 0.05 as

(shell-command (format "timeout 0.05 xclip -selection clipboard -t image/png -o > %s" image-file))

will end the xclip process after 0.05.

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