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C.4.1 General Variables

Here is an alphabetical list of environment variables that have special meanings in Emacs. Most of these variables are also used by some other programs. Emacs does not require any of these environment variables to be set, but it uses their values if they are set.


Used by the cd command to search for the directory you specify, when you specify a relative directory name.


Used by D-Bus when Emacs is compiled with it. Usually, there is no need to change it. Setting it to a dummy address, like ‘unix:path=/dev/null’, suppresses connections to the D-Bus session bus as well as autolaunching the D-Bus session bus if not running yet.


Directory for the architecture-independent files that come with Emacs. This is used to initialize the variable data-directory.


#vindex EMACSDOC, environment variable Directory for the documentation string file, which is used to initialize the Lisp variable doc-directory.


#vindex EMACSLOADPATH, environment variable A colon-separated list of directories20 to search for Emacs Lisp files. If set, it modifies the usual initial value of the load-path variable (see Lisp Libraries). An empty element stands for the default value of load-path; e.g., using ‘EMACSLOADPATH="/tmp:"’ adds /tmp to the front of the default load-path. To specify an empty element in the middle of the list, use 2 colons in a row, as in ‘EMACSLOADPATH="/tmp::/foo"’.


A colon-separated list of directories to search for executable files. If set, Emacs uses this in addition to PATH (see below) when initializing the variable exec-path (see Shell).


Your email address; used to initialize the Lisp variable user-mail-address, which the Emacs mail interface puts into the ‘From’ header of outgoing messages (see Mail Headers).


Used for shell-mode to override the SHELL environment variable (see Interactive Shell).


The name of the file that shell commands are saved in between logins. This variable defaults to ~/.bash_history if you use Bash, to ~/.sh_history if you use ksh, and to ~/.history otherwise.


The location of your files in the directory tree; used for expansion of file names starting with a tilde (~). On MS-DOS, it defaults to the directory from which Emacs was started, with ‘/bin’ removed from the end if it was present. On Windows, the default value of HOME is the Application Data subdirectory of the user profile directory (normally, this is C:/Documents and Settings/username/Application Data, where username is your user name), though for backwards compatibility C:/ will be used instead if a .emacs file is found there.


The name of the machine that Emacs is running on.


A colon-separated list of directories in which to search for Info files.


The user’s preferred locale. The locale has six categories, specified by the environment variables LC_COLLATE for sorting, LC_CTYPE for character encoding, LC_MESSAGES for system messages, LC_MONETARY for monetary formats, LC_NUMERIC for numbers, and LC_TIME for dates and times. If one of these variables is not set, the category defaults to the value of the LANG environment variable, or to the default ‘C’ locale if LANG is not set. But if LC_ALL is specified, it overrides the settings of all the other locale environment variables.

On MS-Windows, if LANG is not already set in the environment when Emacs starts, Emacs sets it based on the system-wide default language, which you can set in the ‘Regional Settings’ Control Panel on some versions of MS-Windows.

The value of the LC_CTYPE category is matched against entries in locale-language-names, locale-charset-language-names, and locale-preferred-coding-systems, to select a default language environment and coding system. See Language Environments.


The user’s login name. See also USER.


The name of your system mail inbox.


Name of setup file for the mh system. See MH-E in The Emacs Interface to MH.


Your real-world name. This is used to initialize the variable user-full-name (see Mail Headers).


The name of the news server. Used by the mh and Gnus packages.


The name of the organization to which you belong. Used for setting the ‘Organization:’ header in your posts from the Gnus package.


A colon-separated list of directories containing executable files. This is used to initialize the variable exec-path (see Shell).


If set, this should be the default directory when Emacs was started.


If set, this specifies an initial value for the variable mail-default-reply-to (see Mail Headers).


The name of a directory in which news articles are saved by default. Used by the Gnus package.


The name of an interpreter used to parse and execute programs run from inside Emacs.


The name of the outgoing mail server. This is used to initialize the variable smtpmail-smtp-server (see Mail Sending).


The type of the terminal that Emacs is using. This variable must be set unless Emacs is run in batch mode. On MS-DOS, it defaults to ‘internal’, which specifies a built-in terminal emulation that handles the machine’s own display.


The name of the termcap library file describing how to program the terminal specified by TERM. This defaults to /etc/termcap.


These environment variables are used to initialize the variable temporary-file-directory, which specifies a directory in which to put temporary files (see Backup). Emacs tries to use TMPDIR first. If that is unset, Emacs normally falls back on /tmp, but on MS-Windows and MS-DOS it instead falls back on TMP, then TEMP, and finally c:/temp.


This specifies the current time zone and possibly also daylight saving time information. On MS-DOS, if TZ is not set in the environment when Emacs starts, Emacs defines a default value as appropriate for the country code returned by DOS. On MS-Windows, Emacs does not use TZ at all.


The user’s login name. See also LOGNAME. On MS-DOS, this defaults to ‘root’.


Used to initialize the version-control variable (see Backup Names).



Here and below, whenever we say “colon-separated list of directories”, it pertains to Unix and GNU/Linux systems. On MS-DOS and MS-Windows, the directories are separated by semi-colons instead, since DOS/Windows file names might include a colon after a drive letter.

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