Selecting URLs via Keyboard in XTerm

Dec 17, 2016 00:00 ยท 522 words ยท 3 minute read

In a recent effort to keep my latest laptop more standard and less customized, I’ve been experimenting with XTerm over my usual choice of rxvt-unicode. XTerm is installed with the xorg group, expected by the template ~/.xinitrc, and is the terminal opened by most window managers' default keybindings.

The only downside so far has been the inability to select and open URLs via the keyboard. This is trivial to configure in urxvt, but seems impossible in xterm. Last week, not having this became painful enough that I sat down to address it.

UPDATE: After a few weeks of use, discovering and attempting to fix a number of edge-case issues, I’ve decided to stop playing whack-a-mole and just move back to urxvt. Your mileage may vary, and if the setup described here works for you that’s great, but I can no longer fully endorse it.

I should’ve listened to 2009 me.

Step 1: charClass ๐Ÿ”—

Recent versions of XTerm allow you to set a charClass value which determines what XTerm thinks are WORDs when doing a triple-click selection. If you do a bit of googling, you’ll find there’s a way to set this charClass such that it considers URLs as WORDs, so you can triple-click on a URL and it’ll select it and only it.


xterm*charClass: 33:48,37-38:48,45-47:48,64:48,58:48,126:48,61:48,63:48,43:48,35:48

I don’t recommend trying to understand what this means.

Step 2: exec-formatted ๐Ÿ”—

Now that we can triple-click-select URLs, we can leverage another feature of modern XTerms, exec-formatted, to automatically send the selection to our browser, instead of middle-click pasting it ourselves:


*VT100.Translations: #override \n\
  Alt <Key>o: exec-formatted("chromium '%t'", PRIMARY) select-start() select-end()

Step 3: select-needle ๐Ÿ”—

You might be satisfied there. You can triple-click a URL and hit a keybinding to open it, no patching required. However, I despise the mouse, so we need to avoid that triple-click.

Here’s where select-needle comes in. It’s a patch I found on the Arch forums that allows you to, with a keybinding, select the first WORD that includes some string, starting from the cursor or any current selection.

What this means is we can look for the first WORD containing “://” and select it. You can hit the keybinding again to search up for the next WORD, or hit our current exec-formatted keybinding to open it. Just like the functionality present in urxvt.

I immediately found the patch didn’t work in mutt, which is a deal breaker. It seemed to rely on the URL being above screen->cursorp and mutt doesn’t really care about a cursor so it often leaves it at (0, 0), well above any URLs on screen. So I changed the algorithm to instead start at the bottom of the terminal always, regardless of where the cursor is. So far this has been working reliably.

I put the updated patch, along with a PKGBUILD for installing it on GitHub. I’ll eventually post it to the AUR to make this easier, but for now:

git clone
(cd ./xterm-select-needle && makepkg -i)
rm -r ./xterm-select-needle

Then update that ~/.Xresources entry to:

*VT100.Translations: #override \n\
  Alt <Key>u: select-needle("://") select-set(PRIMARY) \n\
  Alt <Key>o: exec-formatted("chromium '%t'", PRIMARY) select-start() select-end()

And that’s it.