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XSel -- manipulate the X selection.
Copyright (C) 2001 Conrad Parker <>
For updates see
XSel is a command-line program for getting and setting the contents of the
X selection. Normally this is only accessible by manually highlighting
information and pasting it with the middle mouse button.
To read a file into the X selection:
xsel < file
after which you can paste the file's contents into any X application with
the middle mouse button, as though you had highlighted its text. XSel will
read in the file contents exactly, whereas manual highlighting invariably
breaks lines and transforms tabs into spaces. This is especially handy for
copying in large files.
To write the X selection to a file:
xsel > file
after which file will contain exactly the contents of the X selection,
without trailing newlines and spaces and crap.
XSel is more than just cat for the X selection.
Append to the X selection:
xsel --append < file
To follow a growing file:
xsel --follow < file
to make the X selection follow standard input as it grows (like tail -f).
XSel also lets you access some of the more esoteric features of the
X selection:
Delete the contents of the selection
xsel --delete
Will cause the program in which text is selected to delete that text. This
really works, you can try it on xedit to remotely delete text in the editor
Manipulate the secondary selection
The X Window System maintains two selections, the usual primary selection
and a secondary, which isn't used much ... XSel lets you use the secondary
selection, for example:
To get and set the secondary selection:
xsel --secondary < file
xsel --secondary > file
To swap the primary and secondary selections:
xsel --exchange
So for example you can store useful text in the secondary selection and
retrieve it later.
Manipulate the clipboard selection
Similarly, X has a clipboard selection. You can use the standard xclipboard
program to manage a history of selected text, and you can use xsel to
actually get text into that clipboard:
xsel --clipboard < file
Make the selection contents persist in memory
Normally the X selection only exists as long as the program it was selected
in is running. Further, some buggy applications tend to forget their
selection text after a little while. If you run:
xsel --keep
after selecting some important text, xsel will copy the text into its own
memory so you can paste it elsewhere even if the original program exits or crashes.
Further information
Naturally all these options have single character equivalents, and
xsel --help
provides usage information. For complete details, see the xsel(1x) man page.
New versions of XSel are distributed in source form from:
XSel conforms to the X Window System Inter-Client Communication Conventions
Manual Version 2.0 (ICCCM2), including correct handling of TARGETS,
MULTIPLE, TIMESTAMP, and DELETE targets, INCR properties and large data
My thoughts on ICCCM are available at:
(Warning: explicit language).
Copyright (C) 2001 Conrad Parker <>
Permission to use, copy, modify, distribute, and sell this software and its
documentation for any purpose is hereby granted without fee, provided that
the above copyright notice appear in all copies and that both that copyright
notice and this permission notice appear in supporting documentation. No
representations are made about the suitability of this software for any
purpose. It is provided "as is" without express or implied warranty.
Please direct any queries, bug reports etc. about XSel to the author,
Conrad Parker .