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I'm struggling to work out what the octal 2-byte output from the od command is. I understand the octal output (-b flag) but the octal 2-byte is a mystery to me (-o)

Can someone shed some light on how the -o result is calculated from ASCII?

Here is an example:

[root@localhost lpi103-2]# cat text1
1 apple
2 pear
3 banana
[root@localhost lpi103-2]# od -c text1
0000000   1       a   p   p   l   e  \n   2       p   e   a   r  \n   3
0000020       b   a   n   a   n   a  \n
[root@localhost lpi103-2]# od -bc text1
0000000 061 040 141 160 160 154 145 012 062 040 160 145 141 162 012 063
          1       a   p   p   l   e  \n   2       p   e   a   r  \n   3
0000020 040 142 141 156 141 156 141 012
              b   a   n   a   n   a  \n
[root@localhost lpi103-2]# od -oc text1
0000000  020061  070141  066160  005145  020062  062560  071141  031412
          1       a   p   p   l   e  \n   2       p   e   a   r  \n   3
0000020  061040  067141  067141  005141
              b   a   n   a   n   a  \n
share|improve this question
up vote 8 down vote accepted

For hysterical historical reasons, od prints two-byte words¹ by default.

The number 020061 (octal) corresponds to the two-byte sequence 1␣ ( is a space character). Why? It's clearer if you use hexadecimal: 0o20061 = 0x2031, and is 0x20 (32) in ASCII and 1 is 0x31 (49). Notice that the lower-order bits (0x31) correspond to the first character and the higher-order bits correspond to the second character: od is assembling the words in little-endian order, because that happens to be your system's endianness.²

Little-endian order is not very natural here because one of the output formats (-c) prints characters, the other one (-o) prints words. Each word is printed as a number in the usual big-endian notation (the most significant digit comes first in our left-to-right reading order). This is even more apparent in hexadecimal where the byte boundaries are clearly apparent in the numerical output:

echo '1 text' | od -xc   
0000000 2031 6574 7478 000a
         1    t e  x t \n\0

If you prefer to view the file as a sequence of bytes, use od -t x1 (or hd if you have it).

¹ Once upon a time, men were real men, computers were real computers, numbers were often written in octal, and words were two bytes long.

² All PCs (x86, x86-64) are little-endian, as was the PDP-11 where Unix started. ARM CPUs can cope with either endianness but Linux and iOS use it in little-endian mode. So most of the platforms you're likely to encounter nowadays are little-endian.

share|improve this answer
Thanks for the detailed answer. It was the endianness that was tripping me up when I was trying to do the ASCII - octal conversion myself. – zod90 Mar 3 '11 at 0:47
I was going to mention endieness but I am glad I didn't, Gilles explained it well. – Mr. Shickadance Mar 3 '11 at 4:39

Interesting question. After browsing the man page, I found that -o prints octal output (od == octal dump), the c you appended only prints the associated characters as well. You get the same numbers with -o alone.

Looking at the output it appears that od is reading data two bytes at a time. Take the first two characters for instance:

1      061     0011 0001
SPACE  040     0010 0000

The answer comes when we concatenate the binary values (with the '1' on the right, the SPACE on the left):

0010 0000 0011 0001

Converting this binary value to octal gives us 020061, which is what od printed.

Now, why? I think the point is that od is reading two bytes at a time, and it is not concerned or aware that those two bytes are actually two separate characters.

share|improve this answer
Great answer. Thanks. – zod90 Mar 3 '11 at 0:24

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