I wanted to find out what my terminal is sending for Ctrl+Backspace and Alt+Backspace, the standard way to do this is to run cat on the terminal and typing stuff usually works, but with certain output like these, the results are tricky.

I am guessing that Alt+Backspace is sending \x1b\x7f (that is, escape backspace) but what's happening if I run cat and type Ctrl+V and Alt+Backspace, or just Alt+Backspace, what happens is that the escape will get "typed" and then immediately it is removed with the backspace so it looks like nothing is happening. I only got clued into this once by seeing my computer render a single frame of the ^[ escape being there.

So far I am not sure how to work out what Ctrl+Backspace is sending. it's not Ctrl+W even though both delete a word on the bash prompt, because under cat it is doing nothing while Ctrl+W deletes a word!


3 Answers 3


Simply use this command:

showkey -a
  • Thanks! I tried showkey for a while, neither showkey nor sudo showkey worked, but -a is the magic flag.
    – Steven Lu
    Oct 26, 2021 at 17:26
  • it would just spit back Couldn't get a file descriptor referring to the console. Might you know what this means?? @egmont
    – Steven Lu
    Oct 26, 2021 at 17:26
  • 2
    showkey was primarily designed to work on the Linux text console (i.e. Ctrl+Alt+F1 and friends). All options but -a look for extra features only available there.
    – egmont
    Oct 26, 2021 at 19:42

In zsh, with:

$ STTY='raw -echo min 0 time 40' cat -vte

Or with bash:

$ s=$(stty -g); stty raw -echo min 0 time 40; cat -vte; stty "$s"

You'll see the terminal input raw as it sends it and as rendered by cat -vte. Enter nothing for 4 seconds (40 deciseconds) to stop.

You can replace cat -vte with od -An -w1 -tu1 -tx1 -to1 -ta (assuming GNU od or compatible) for instance to see each byte value in decimal, hex, octal or as character.


I found a trick elsewhere to show a single character in bash by using read -rsn1 key && echo "$key" | xxd. This was 90% of the way there but I was stuck on this for a while because I would just get back 0x1b (Escape), which wasn't the full picture.

Then I changed it to read -rsn2 key && echo "$key" | xxd and this scales up to however many characters your escape sequence happens to have, a little bit of experimentation does the trick. So on my terminal I had both Ctrl+ and Alt+Backspace mapped to 0x1b, 0x7f (meta-backspace if you will) in the past for convenience reasons. I am going down this path in the first place because I want to configure a new terminal emulator to let me delete words with both combos but only one of them works. The read -rsn in bash is a good tool for doing a lower level of output debugging than cat.

  • 1
    You'd want IFS= read -rsn2 key for it not to mangle the characters of $IFS, and replace echo with printf %s so a 0x0a byte be not added and backslash not mangled. Note that read -nx reads up to x characters (not bytes) or up to a newline. Use LC_ALL=C IFS= read -rsN2 to read 2 bytes (including newline). That still doesn't work for 0 bytes though. Oct 26, 2021 at 7:50

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