The Keyboard: Keys and Keymaps

Its been a while since I posted in this series – but don’t fret! I sill am dedicated to providing a guide to Emacs Lisp, the guide that I wish I had a year ago. I also recently implied that I prefer Ruby to Lisp, but that is not important. Emacs is still the best developer environment in the world, and occupies a really important place in the future of code composition.

The learning to program in Emacs Lisp can be split into a number of concerns. The first concern is the language itself. How do we initialize variables, create functions, generally structure programs? So far, we have been mostly limited to these types of concerns. We have not yet touched on manipulating Emacs itself. Which, is basically the goal of all of this Emacs hacking, right? So, to get started, lets look at manipulating keybindings. One of Emacs’ most “famous” features is the magic you can do with the keyboard. I use quotes around famous because the finger stretching it requires is the primary source of criticism.

Either way, keybindings are a good place to start talking about modifying Emacs.

Setting a Global Keyboard Binding

On Mac OS X Emacs, the key Command-Q will kill Emacs. I always hated this. Disabling it was really easy, though:

(global-set-key (kbd "s-q") nil)

This code introduces a few things. First, we use the global-set-key function, which sets the key, well, globally. Other commands set keys for specific keymaps. Which we’ll get to in a minute.

Next, we have the form kbd. We could skip using kbd, but the strings we would need to use to specify a key binding would be uglier and more opaque. Using kbd lets us specify these in a much more consistent, natural way. In the above example, “s-q” is the “Command-Q” binding.

Finally, we have nil. This means that the key binding now does nothing, which disables the Command-Q quitting in our personal Emacs. Nice!

We can bind functions to keys. Lets create a binding so that Meta-h will execute a “hello world” function:

(global-set-key (kbd "M-h")
                (lambda ()
                  (message "Hello from Emacs!")))

Now, if you press Meta-h, you’ll receive a friendly greeting from Emacs.

This is the essence of keybindings. If you were to stop reading here, you would be able to get pretty far. However, there is another feature that we should discuss: that is, keymaps.


A keymap is simply a collection of keys to bindings. They allow us to conveniently group bindings to be collectively added, enabled, or disabled.

Not only does a keymap hold keybindings, it can also itself be bound to a key. In this way, we create a hierarchy of bindings. Lets look at a quick example:

(defvar joel-custom-keymap nil "my keymap..")

(setq joel-custom-keymap (make-sparse-keymap))
(global-set-key (kbd "C-x M-j")  joel-custom-keymap)

(define-key joel-custom-keymap (kbd "s") 'otto/status)
(define-key joel-custom-keymap (kbd "t") 'twit)
(define-key joel-custom-keymap (kbd "p") 'plan)

This is actual code that I use. It comes straight out of my dotemacs file. It binds the keymap joel-custom-keymap to the key sequence “C-x M-j”. When I press those, I can then press s, t, or p to run the commands otto/status, twit, or plan, respectively.

I feel like this is straightforward but awkward to explain. In any case, this is enough to get started. You’ll probably want to get familiar with what the manual entry contains so that you will know where to look in the future. Happy hacking!