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Stupid Bash tricks: History, reusing arguments, files and directories, functions, and more

Here are five great tips and tricks for the Bash shell that you can use at your Linux terminal today.

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As a system administrator, shells are a part of daily operations. Shells often provide more options and flexibility than a graphical user interface (GUI). Daily repetitive tasks can easily be automated by scripts, or tasks can be scheduled to run at certain times during the day. A shell provides a convenient way to interact with the system and enables you to do more in less time. There are many different shells, including Bash, zsh, tcsh, and PowerShell.

In this two-part blog post, I share some of the Bash one-liners I use to speed up my work and leave more time to drink coffee. In this initial post, I'll cover history, last arguments, working with files and directories, reading file contents, and Bash functions. In part two, I'll examine shell variables, the find command, file descriptors, and executing operations remotely.

Use the history command

The history command is a handy one. History allows me to see what commands I ran on a particular system or arguments were passed to that command. I use history to re-run commands without having to remember anything.

The record of recent commands is stored by default in ~/.bash_history. This location can be changed by modifying the HISTFILE shell variable. There are other variables, such as HISTSIZE (lines to store in memory for the current session) and HISTFILESIZE (how many lines to keep in the history file). If you want to know more about history, see man bash.

Let's say I run the following command:

$> sudo systemctl status sshd

Bash tells me the sshd service is not running, so the next thing I want to do is start the service. I had checked its status with my previous command. That command was saved in history, so I can reference it. I simply run:

$> !!:s/status/start/
sudo systemctl start sshd

The above expression has the following content:

  • !! - repeat the last command from history
  • :s/status/start/ - substitute status with start

The result is that the sshd service is started.

Next, I increase the default HISTSIZE value from 500 to 5000 by using the following command:

$> echo “HISTSIZE=5000” >> ~/.bashrc && source ~/.bashrc

What if I want to display the last three commands in my history? I enter:

$> history 3
 1002  ls
 1003  tail audit.log
 1004  history 3

I run tail on audit.log by referring to the history line number. In this case, I use line 1003:

$> !1003
tail audit.log

Imagine you've copied something from another terminal or your browser and you accidentally paste the copy (which you have in the copy buffer) into the terminal. Those lines will be stored in the history, which here is something you don't want. So that's where unset HISTFILE && exit comes in handy

$> unset HISTFILE && exit


$> kill -9 $$

Reference the last argument of the previous command

When I want to list directory contents for different directories, I may change between directories quite often. There is a nice trick you can use to refer to the last argument of the previous command. For example:

$> pwd
$> ls some/very/long/path/to/some/directory
foo-file bar-file baz-file

In the above example, /some/very/long/path/to/some/directory is the last argument of the previous command.

If I want to cd (change directory) to that location, I enter something like this:

$> cd $_

$> pwd

Now simply use a dash character to go back to where I was:

$> cd -
$> pwd

Work on files and directories

Imagine that I want to create a directory structure and move a bunch of files having different extensions to these directories.

First, I create the directories in one go:

$> mkdir -v dir_{rpm,txt,zip,pdf}
mkdir: created directory 'dir_rpm'
mkdir: created directory 'dir_txt'
mkdir: created directory 'dir_zip'
mkdir: created directory 'dir_pdf'

Next, I move the files based on the file extension to each directory:

$> mv -- *.rpm dir_rpm/
$> mv -- *.pdf dir_pdf/
$> mv -- *.txt dir_txt/
$> mv -- *.zip dir_txt/

The double dash characters -- mean End of Options. This flag prevents files that begin with a dash from being treated as arguments.

Next, I want to replace/move all *.txt files to *.log files, so I enter:

$> for f in ./*.txt; do mv -v ”$file” ”${file%.*}.log”; done
renamed './file10.txt' -> './file10.log'
renamed './file1.txt' -> './file1.log'
renamed './file2.txt' -> './file2.log'
renamed './file3.txt' -> './file3.log'
renamed './file4.txt' -> './file4.log'

Instead of using the for loop above, I can install the prename command and accomplish the above goal like this:

$> prename -v 's/.txt/.log/' *.txt
file10.txt -> file10.log
file1.txt -> file1.log
file2.txt -> file2.log
file3.txt -> file3.log
file4.txt -> file4.log

Often, when modifying a configuration file, I make a backup copy of the original one by using a basic copy command. For example:

$> cp /etc/sysconfig/network-scripts/ifcfg-eth0 /etc/sysconfig/network-scripts/ifcfg-eth0.back

As you can see, repeating the whole path and appending .back to the file isn't that efficient and probably error-prone. There is a shorter, neater way to do this. Here it comes:

$> cp /etc/sysconfig/network-scripts/ifcfg-eth0{,.back}

You can perform different checks on files or variables. Run help test for more information.

Use the following command to discover if a file is a symbolic link:

$> [[ -L /path/to/file ]] && echo “File is a symlink”

Here is an issue I ran across recently. I wanted to gunzip/untar a bunch of files in one go. Without thinking, I typed:

$> tar zxvf *.gz

The result was:

tar: openvpn.tar.gz: Not found in archive
tar: Exiting with failure status due to previous errors

The tar files were:


Why didn't it work, and why would ls -l *.gz work instead? Under the hood, it looks like this:

$> tar zxvf *.gz

Is transformed as follows:

$> tar zxvf iptables.tar.gz openvpn.tar.gz
tar: openvpn.tar.gz: Not found in archive
tar: Exiting with failure status due to previous errors

The tar command expected to find openvpn.tar.gz within iptables.tar.gz. I solved this with a simple for loop:

$> for f in ./*.gz; do tar zxvf "$f"; done

I can even generate random passwords by using Bash! Here's an example:

$> alphanum=( {a..z} {A..Z} {0..9} ); for((i=0;i<=${#alphanum[@]};i++)); do printf '%s' "${alphanum[@]:$((RANDOM%255)):1}"; done; echo

Here is an example that uses OpenSSL:

$> openssl rand -base64 12

Read a file line by line

Assume I have a file with a lot of IP addresses and want to operate on those IP addresses. For example, I want to run dig to retrieve reverse-DNS information for the IP addresses listed in the file. I also want to skip IP addresses that start with a comment (# or hashtag).

I'll use fileA as an example. Its contents are:  some ip in dc1  another ip in dc2
# not used IP  another IP

I could copy and paste each IP address, and then run dig manually:

$> dig +short -x

Or I could do this:

$> while read -r ip _; do [[ $ip == \#* ]] && continue; dig +short -x "$ip"; done < ipfile

What if I want to swap the columns in fileA? For example, I want to put IP addresses in the right-most column so that fileA looks like this:

some ip in dc1
another ip in dc2
not used IP #
another IP

I run:

$> while  read -r ip rest; do printf '%s %s\n' "$rest" "$ip"; done < fileA

Use Bash functions

Functions in Bash are different from those written in Python, C, awk, or other languages. In Bash, a simple function that accepts one argument and prints "Hello world" would look like this:

func() { local arg=”$1”; echo “$arg” ; }

I can call the function like this:

$> func foo

Sometimes a function invokes itself recursively to perform a certain task. For example:

func() { local arg="$@"; echo "$arg"; f "$arg"; }; f foo bar

This recursion will run forever and utilize a lot of resources. In Bash, you can use FUNCNEST to limit recursion. In the following example, I set FUNCNEST=5 to limit the recursion to five.

func() { local arg="$@"; echo "$arg"; FUNCNEST=5; f "$arg"; }; f foo bar
foo bar
foo bar
foo bar
foo bar
foo bar
bash: f: maximum function nesting level exceeded (5)

Use a function to retrieve the most recent or oldest file

Here is a sample function to display the most recent file in a certain directory:

  local f latest
  for f in "${1:-.}"/*
      [[ $f -nt $latest ]] && latest="$f"
   printf '%s\n' "$latest"

This function displays the oldest file in a certain directory:

  local f oldest
  for file in "${1:-.}"/*
      [[ -z $oldest || $f -ot $oldest ]] && oldest="$f"
  printf '%s\n' "$oldest"

These are just a few examples of how to use functions in Bash without invoking other external commands.

I sometimes find myself typing a command over and over with a lot of parameters. One command I often use is kubectl (Kubernetes CLI). I am tired of running this long command! Here's the original command:

$> kubectl -n my_namespace get pods


$> kubectl -n my_namespace get rc,services

This syntax requires me to manually include -n my_namespace each time I run the command. There is an easier way to do this using a function:

$> kubectl () { command kubectl -n my_namespace ”$@” ; }

Now I can run kubectl without having to type -n namespace each time:

$> kubectl get pods

I can apply the same technique to other commands.

Wrap up

These are just a few excellent tricks that exist for Bash. In part two, I will show some more examples, including the use of find and remote execution. I encourage you to practice these tricks to make your command-line administration tasks easier and more accurate.

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Topics:   Linux   Bash  
Author’s photo

Valentin Bajrami

Valentin is a system engineer with more than six years of experience in networking, storage, high-performing clusters, and automation. He is involved in different open source projects like bash, Fedora, Ceph, FreeBSD and is a member of Red Hat Accelerators. More about me

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