I used to be able to do things like:

X=123 cat <<EOF
X is $X

or even simpler:

X=123 echo $X

The first one still seems to work on Mac OS X after install the bash fix, however neither seem to work on my Ubuntu 14.04 instance in AWS anymore. What makes it that echo or cat no longer have access to these environment variables? Stranger still, when I pass the env vars to a NodeJS app I don't seem to have any issues:

cat <<EOF > test.js
console.log('X is ' + process.env.X);
X=123 node test.js

This seems to work in bash scripts as well:

cat <<EOF > test.sh
echo X is \$X
chmod +x test.sh
X=123 ./test.sh

marked as duplicate by Jander, jasonwryan, Anthon, jw013, chaos Oct 9 '14 at 21:59

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

  • 1
    X=123 echo $X should never have worked. Have you looked at the test.sh file that you created? Does it say echo X is $X or does it say echo X is ? – G-Man Oct 7 '14 at 22:42
  • You're absolutely right, the shell was stripping out $X since it was evaluating it. I've updated the question to reflect that (basically it works in Mac OS X, not in Ubuntu). – Abdullah Jibaly Oct 7 '14 at 23:05

In any POSIX shell, when you write

X=123 echo $X

the $X is expanded before the whole command is executed, i.e. if $X is initially unset, you get:

X=123 echo

which is then executed. You can see more or less what the shell is doing with set -x:

$ set -x
$ X=123 echo X=$X
+ X=123
+ echo X=
$ set +x

You can see that echo (actually the shell itself, which does the expansion before executing echo) still has access to the environment:

$ X=123 eval 'echo $X'

The issue with cat <<EOF is similar. Note that concerning bash, there was a bug in old versions (before 4.1), described in the CHANGES file as:

Fixed a bug that caused variable expansion in here documents to look in any temporary environment.

This may be the cause of the behavior observed under Mac OS X. Do not rely on this bug.

  • Thanks for the awesome explanation! I'm still stumped by why the cat <<EOF works in Mac OS X bash and not in Ubuntu. Any ideas? – Abdullah Jibaly Oct 8 '14 at 0:49
  • Probably worth adding to that code a "set +x" to stop debugging. – rooby Oct 8 '14 at 2:20
  • @AbdullahJibaly The behavior under Mac OS X is probably due to a bug in old bash versions (now fixed). See my edited answer. – vinc17 Oct 8 '14 at 7:26

Your questions regarding the here-documents are probably unrelated. The thing is, bash will perform the expansions and the assignment concurrently - so a leading X=123... should not affect the value expanded from within the here-document. This is because the here-document is an input file-descriptor that bash must build and pass to cat upon invocation in the same way it must assign 123 to $X before passing that plus the rest of its environment off to cat at execve time.


X=321; X=123 bash <<HEREDOC
echo "$X is not yet \$X and $$ is not yet \$$."


321 is not yet 123 and 17134 is not yet 17225.

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