Bash History Hacks

When you work a lot on the command line, history can be invaluable. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve forgotten how I ran some earlier command and used my bash history to find out what it was. This is one of the big advantages of using CLIs over GUIs.

Accessing history

The main interface I use to my history is ^P (Ctrl-P). This recalls the previous command from history. Subsequent presses step further back and ^N steps forward again. These keys are set in muscle memory at this point, I use them that much (they also work in emacs and many other places).

A really useful extension to that is ^R. This does a reverse incremental search through your history for whatever you type. Subsequent presses of ^R go further back. I do this many times each day and cringe when I see people stepping up further than a few ^P through history.

You can also use ^S to search forwards again (so the counterpart to ^N), but you probably need to add the following option in your .bashrc first:1

1stty -ixon

Then there is searching through history with something like history | grep <cmd> but sometimes I just do history and have a look around. You could, of course, pipe your history anywhere else like into sed and uniq to perform some kind of stats on your history.

I like to set the following to enable a nicer timestamp when viewing history:


Now let’s look at some tweaks to help with collecting and curating said history.

Unlimited history

The first thing to enable is an unlimited history file. You have the disk space. Put the following options in your .bashrc file:

3shopt -s histappend

You should search any existing .bashrc file for these options as many distros include them set by default.

At this point it’s useful to understand how bash history works. First there is the history we were interacting with above via ^P and history etc. This is stored in memory and local to each bash instance. When you type new commands, this is where they end up. Then, separately, there is a persistent history file which is stored on disk. You can find out where yours will be by checking the variable HISTFILE (it’s usually something like ~/.bash_history).

By default, when you run bash it truncates your history file to HISTFILESIZE then reads it into memory. When you exit it overwrites your history file with HISTSIZE entries from memory. With these variables unset the limits are removed, but you still need to enable histappend so bash appends to the history file instead of overwriting it. Otherwise you’ll get history loss when you run multiple shells.

I also set the following option:

1export HISTCONTROL=ignoreboth

This ignores duplicate lines and lines that start with a space, so if you are going to include a password or something you can start the line with a space to stop it getting into your history.

Project-local history

Sometimes when I’m exploring some new data or tools it seems appropriate to keep history local to that project only. This gives me an informal log of what I’ve done to get the data files in my working directory. This can be especially useful if you later need to formalise things for writing a paper, for example.

What we’d like is when we cd to a project any in-memory history is written out to the current/old history file, then switch to a project-specific history file, clear the in-memory history and read in the project-specific history file.

For this I wondered if I could use direnv which is a great tool for setting project-specific environment variables. But unfortunately direnv can only set environment variables.2 If we simply set HISTFILE in the .envrc file this won’t have the desired effect because, as mentioned above, bash only reads the history file when it opens and writes it when it exits. We need to also interact with the history command directly to control writing/reading to the old/new history files.

Fortunately, someone else wondered if they could do this with direnv and posted a solution to the GitHub issue board using a bash function:

I have tweaked the solution slightly and come up with the following:

 1_set_local_histfile() {
 2    history -a
 4    if [[ -n $DIRENV_FILE ]] && [[ -n $LOCAL_HISTFILE ]]; then
 5        local histfile_local=${HOME}/.bash_history.d/${DIRENV_FILE%\/*}
 6        mkdir -p $(dirname $histfile_local)
 7        touch $histfile_local
 8        chmod 600 $histfile_local
 9    else
10        local histfile_local=${HOME}/.bash_history
11    fi
13    [[ "$HISTFILE" == "$histfile_local" ]] && return
15    # switch history to new file
16    echo "Writing Bash history to $histfile_local"
18    history -w
19    history -c
21    export HISTFILE=$histfile_local
23    history -r

The function _set_local_histfile runs before/after each command you run. The first thing it does is instantly appends the current history to the history file (history -a). Then it checks to see if we have enabled local history and, if so, makes a new history file in your home directory under .bash_history.d. I wanted to keep all history in my home directory rather than in the project directory just in case the project is on an NFS mount or something and I can’t or wouldn’t want to write history there. It’s also important to set a strict access control on history files (in case you type passwords or something). Then, if a local history file is in use, we write out the current history, clear current history, switch file and read the new history file, as laid out above.

Finally, I chose to make this an option rather than setting it whenever a .envrc file is in use, so to use this set LOCAL_HISTFILE=1 in .envrc:

1echo 'export LOCAL_HISTFILE=1' >> .envrc

Or to make it a tiny bit nicer you can define a command in your .direnvrc:

1use_localhist() {
2    export LOCAL_HISTFILE=1

Then you can use simply use localhist in an .envrc.


Learning to use history can really improve your proficiency on the command line and with a few simple tweaks in your .bashrc it becomes even more useful and, sometimes, a lifesaver.

Increasing the size of your history and preventing history loss is the kind of thing you’ll wish you enabled yesterday, so you might as well do it now. The local history one is a bit more niche, but can be very useful for people like scientists doing a lot of ad hoc data processing on the command line.

  1. See: ↩︎

  2. Direnv does not run the .envrc file in the current shell but in a subshell and then inspects changes to the environment in the subshell. ↩︎