Bash: Get a Nice, Dynamic Terminal Title

I’ll explain here how to have your terminal’s title set to the current directory when you’re at the prompt, and the currently running command if there is a job running. Additionally, I’ll show how to wrap the fg built-in to set the right title when you resume suspended jobs.

Missed it by that much

Most bash users who’ve looked into updating their terminal title with the currently running command have probably come across this line:

trap 'echo -ne "\e]0;${BASH_COMMAND}\007"' DEBUG

The trap with DEBUG exposes a hook in bash on each command, and it exposes the command name through the BASH_COMMAND variable. This allows us to set the terminal title, which is achieved by sending the correct ANSI escape sequence. (These control characters are specific to xterm, and are not part of the normal terminal control set, which are used to e.g. move the cursor.)

This is a great first step, but there are a few problems if you stop right here. First, if you already have a PROMPT_COMMAND then the name of the terminal will be the command named in your PROMPT_COMMAND, in my case, a function named _update_ps1 — that’s hardly useful. I’d rather see the current working directory when I’m at the shell — that’s stored in the PWD variable.

Second, if you use job control a lot, like I do, then when you resume a suspended job, the name in BASH_COMMAND will be fg and not the name of the resumed job. That is totally useless if you’re using terminal titles, as after you’ve resumed jobs in multiple terminal windows (or panes in tmux) their names will all be fg.

The solution: write a better trap handler

First, we’ll write a function to be called on each command:

_update_title () {
    if [ "$BASH_COMMAND" == '_update_ps1' ]; then
    elif [ "$1" ]; then
    printf "\e]0;%s\007" "$title"

(N.B. the quotes around $title at line 9 are important, to force bash to apply the full command as one argument, even when it contains spaces.)

The basic logic is this:

  • if there is a BASH_COMMAND defined (i.e. we have trapped a command), and it is the name of our PROMPT_COMMAND function, then we know we are idling at the prompt; set our title to PWD
  • otherwise, if this function has arguments, set our title to the concatenation of all our arguments
  • lastly, if we do have a BASH_COMMAND and it’s not our PROMPT_COMMAND, use that as our title

Having defined this function, we install our trap handler in the usual way:

trap '_update_title' DEBUG

…and alias fg

Now, we have the basic functionality that we desire, but the problem with fg still remains. Let’s write a wrapper around fg which sets the right command name.

foreground() {
    extglob_state=$(shopt -p extglob)
    shopt -s extglob
    case "$1" in
            jobname=$(jobs -l | grep -e "^\[$1\]" | awk '{$1=$2=$3=""; print $0}');;
            jobname=$(jobs -l | grep -e "^\[[[:digit:]]\+\]$1" | awk '{$1=$2=$3=""; print $0}');;
            jobname=$(jobs -l | grep -e "^\[[[:digit:]]\+\]+" | awk '{$1=$2=$3=""; print $0}');;
    _update_title ${jobname##*( )}
    \fg $1
alias fg=foreground

(N.B. we need the extglob option to give us extended glob pattern matching in our case statement, but we should be a Boy Scout and restore the state of any options we change in our function.)

fg takes an optional argument. If that argument is a digit, it is interpreted as a job number, and the corresponding job is switched to the foreground. (You can list all jobs with the jobs command.) If the argument is not a digit, there are two other correct inputs:

  • + which refers to the most recently suspended job (the “current” job)
  • - which refers to the next most recently suspended job (the “previous” job)

If there’s no argument, the the default behavior is fg +. What our alias function does is parse the arguments, get the corresponding job name from the output of jobs, and sets the title using our previous _update_title function. Then, we actually invoke the true fg built-in; since we’ve aliased the name fg, we have to use an escape, \fg, to refer to the unaliased instance.

We could just echo the terminal escape sequence from this function, but by reusing our previous function, we can have consistent behavior if we modify our terminal title format e.g. to prepend HOSTNAME or USER to our title:

printf "\e]0;%s@%s:%s\007" $USER $HOSTNAME "$title"

Bonus: tmux

If you’re like me, you use tmux to manage multiple terminal sessions within one window of your terminal emulator. In tmux, the terminal title is set per pane — so if you have one terminal window which is split into multiple panes, each one will have its title set.

In our environment at GR, we often have multiple services running as part of our development environment. I keep those running in one tmux window, split into multiple panes. Now, each pane gets the title of the running service. As a bonus, here’s how to get the terminal title into the tmux window list:

window-status-current-format ' #I #W (#T) '

The #T expands to the current terminal title.

Final advice

If you’re going to be playing around with trap, you should always uninstall any existing handlers before you switch to a new handler:

trap - DEBUG