I have no problems starting Emacs from a terminal, while if I start it from the desktop (I have a desktop file containing emacsclient -ca '') Emacs starts with a putt-ugly font (see below a screenshot).

To debug the issue I started emacsclient from the command line and, again see below for the transcript, I've got

Warning (initialization): An error occurred while loading ‘/home/boffi/.emacs’:

Wrong type argument: font, unspecified

BUT when I start Emacs directly I have no problems at all, emacsclient does not recognize --debug-init and the error message is not meaningful to me...

Moreover, if I visit the "broken" Emacs and I type M-x load-file RET ~/.emacs RET my init file is executed w/o problems!

What can be done to fix this issue?

The Emacs version is apparent from the 1st screenshot, I'm on Debian Sid, fairly current.

17:46 boffi@debian:~ $ emacs --debug-init
17:46 boffi@debian:~ $ # see screenshot

enter image description here

17:47 boffi@debian:~ $ emacsclient -ca ''
emacsclient: can't find socket; have you started the server?
To start the server in Emacs, type "M-x server-start".

Warning: due to a long standing Gtk+ bug
Emacs might crash when run in daemon mode and the X11 connection is unexpectedly lost.
Using an Emacs configured with --with-x-toolkit=lucid does not have this problem.
Loading /etc/emacs/site-start.d/00debian.el (source)...
Loading /etc/emacs/site-start.d/00debian.el (source)...done
Loading /etc/emacs/site-start.d/50asymptote.el (source)...
Loading /etc/emacs/site-start.d/50asymptote.el (source)...done
Loading /etc/emacs/site-start.d/50autoconf.el (source)...
Loading /etc/emacs/site-start.d/50autoconf.el (source)...done
Loading /etc/emacs/site-start.d/50dictionaries-common.el (source)...
Loading debian-ispell...
Loading /var/cache/dictionaries-common/emacsen-ispell-default.el (source)...
Loading /var/cache/dictionaries-common/emacsen-ispell-default.el (source)...done
Loading debian-ispell...done
Loading /var/cache/dictionaries-common/emacsen-ispell-dicts.el (source)...
Loading /var/cache/dictionaries-common/emacsen-ispell-dicts.el (source)...done
Loading /etc/emacs/site-start.d/50dictionaries-common.el (source)...done
Loading /etc/emacs/site-start.d/50figlet.el (source)...
Loading /etc/emacs/site-start.d/50figlet.el (source)...done
Loading /etc/emacs/site-start.d/50latexmk.el (source)...
Loading /etc/emacs/site-start.d/50latexmk.el (source)...done
Loading /etc/emacs/site-start.d/50texlive-lang-english.el (source)...
Loading /etc/emacs/site-start.d/50texlive-lang-english.el (source)...done
Loading /home/boffi/.emacs.d/synctex.el (source)...
Loading /home/boffi/.emacs.d/synctex.el (source)...done
Warning (initialization): An error occurred while loading ‘/home/boffi/.emacs’:

Wrong type argument: font, unspecified

To ensure normal operation, you should investigate and remove the
cause of the error in your initialization file.  Start Emacs with
the ‘--debug-init’ option to view a complete error backtrace.
Starting Emacs daemon.
Emacs daemon should have started, trying to connect again
Waiting for Emacs...
17:48 boffi@debian:~ $ # see screenshot

enter image description here

2 Answers 2


Try bisecting your init file (.emacs), to see which part of it causes the problem:

Comment out 1/2 of it, and try that with emacsclient to see which 1/2 is problematic. Then comment out 1/4 of it, and try emacsclient again, to see which 1/4 is problematic. Then 1/8, 1/16, 1/32,...

At the very least this will remove most of your init file from the problem search space. And with a bit of luck identifying the minimal bit of code that causes the problem will suggest a solution to you.


In my question I said that I cannot use --debug-init with emacsclient but I was wrong, I can indeed use --debug-init.

emacsclient, per its man page, possibly starts Emacs as emacs -daemon and this is is equivalent, as I've found, to emacs -nw -daemon, so that every init file code that references frame/desktop stuff is bound to fail...

But I can use emacs --debug-init -nw to get a lisp backtrace!

Debugger entered--Lisp error: (wrong-type-argument font unspecified)
  font-get(unspecified :user-spec)
  eval-buffer(#<buffer  *load*> nil "/home/boffi/.emacs" nil t)  ; Reading at buffer position 4349
  load-with-code-conversion("/home/boffi/.emacs" "/home/boffi/.emacs" t t)
  load("~/.emacs" t t)
  #f(compiled-function () #<bytecode 0x1ddeb9>)()

I came to identify the culprit to these two lines

 (face-attribute 'default :font (selected-frame) 'default) :user-spec)

that, as far as I can remember, was put in to debug some issue with Emacs not obeying my font choice (correct me if I'm wrong).

I removed said two lines and everything is now fine...

I wonder if emacs -daemon could check for a DISPLAY environment variable and load the init file in an appropriate environment.

  • In retrospect, I'm afraid of a regression because emacs -daemon used to load my init file w/o a glitch and suddenly started to cough on the selected-frame stuff...
    – gboffi
    Aug 1, 2019 at 20:53

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