When using less in OS X, how can I customize the colors with with things are displayed? When I run less within an ansi-term in Emacs the colors don't come out nicely.

$ less --version
less 418
Copyright (C) 1984-2007 Mark Nudelman

2 Answers 2


For OSX, this refers to Emacs 22.1.1; Fedora with Emacs 24 has the same behavior.

Emac's ansi-term supports 8 colors. That is all that ANSI specified, and "ansi-term" is named appropriately. The eterm-color terminal description in ncurses is used for this terminal type. Emacs sets TERM to this value (see source):

(defvar term-term-name "eterm-color"
  "Name to use for TERM.
Using \"emacs\" loses, because bash disables editing if $TERM == emacs.")

If you override TERM, e.g., to tell applications that it has more colors, then the extra colors will not be used. Likewise, hard-coded applications which ignore the terminal database cannot use extra colors either.

While Emacs can use more than 8 colors in a terminal, ansi-term does not. Reading the source, look for term-ansi-current-color, and see that there is only logic for 30-37, 39, 40-47 and 49:

   ;; Foreground
   ((and (>= parameter 30) (<= parameter 37))
    (setq term-ansi-current-color (- parameter 29)))

   ;; Reset foreground
   ((eq parameter 39)
    (setq term-ansi-current-color 0))

   ;; Background
   ((and (>= parameter 40) (<= parameter 47))
    (setq term-ansi-current-bg-color (- parameter 39)))

   ;; Reset background
   ((eq parameter 49)
    (setq term-ansi-current-bg-color 0))

You may be able to change the palette of colors used by your terminal, but there is no way to make ansi-term differ from that (it will use the first 8 colors even if Emacs can use 256).

Further reading:

For Emacs other than ansi-term:


  • Fantastic answer. Thanks! Coincidentally I asked this other question today in Emacs.SE before reading this answer you wrote. What you have here seems appropriate for that other Q as well! Jul 23, 2016 at 19:22

I believe it's partially a function of your terminal type, for one.

$ echo $TERM

This post might also be worth a look, titled: Piping Ls Through Less With Colors on Mac OS X. Also this setting might prove helpful.

  $ export LESS="-erX" 


  $ export LESS="-eRX" 

You can consult the man page for less to find out more about the various switches above.

  • -R may be preferable over -r in this case. Feb 6, 2014 at 15:08
  • Thanks slm and @StephaneChazelas - How can I change those colors then? Sometimes, I run less within a shell within Emacs (where echo $TERM returns eterm-color). Within a regular terminal, I get xterm-256colorand within tmux I get screen. Feb 8, 2014 at 20:20
  • 1
    @user815423426 - some of the coloring (ls output) is controlled through these files: /etc/DIR_COLORS*. I do not believe there is any central resource where you can control the colors, rather you have to control them per application such as emacs, vim, etc.
    – slm
    Feb 8, 2014 at 20:26

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