Elisp: load, load-file, autoload

By Xah Lee. Date: . Last updated: .

Emacs lisp's library system is a primitive system, centered on loading file by load, with some slightly high level things such as its autoload, and features, require. However, nothing is strict or enforced by elisp.


load → is the general function for loading a file.

Syntax is:


If no optional argument is given, it'll try to load the FILE by searching for it in a list of directory stored in variable load-path, by first appending .elc to the argument FILE, and if none found, it'll try appending .el, and others, and finally try just FILE as given.

For example, if you

(load "x"), it'll first try

  1. x.elc
  2. x.el
  3. x


load-file → load one specific file. The file name argument should contain file name extension, such as .el .elc

(load-file file_name) just calls

(load (expand-file-name file_name) nil nil t)

Use load-file when you have a specific full path of a file in mind.


autoload → Load a file only when a function is called.


autoload associates a function name with a file path. When the function is called, load the file, and execute the function.

If you are writing a major mode, have your package installation go by autoload if possible. It saves startup time.

See also: Elisp: How to Name Your Major Mode.


require → Load a package if it has not already been loaded by checking the features variable.

(require FEATURE &optional FILENAME NOERROR)

require checks if the symbol FEATURE is in variable features. If not, then it calls load to load it.

File name is guessed from the feature name FEATURE, or specified in the optional argument.

require is best used in elisp libraries or scripts, similar to other language's “require” or “import”.

[see Elisp: provide, require, features]

What's Library, Package, Feature?

No Namespace

Emacs lisp the language does not have namespace. Everything is global. So, don't expect library or module to be structured namespace like python module system or Java's Package system.

[see Python: How to Write a Module]

[see Java: Package]

What's the difference between a Package and Library?

These words are used losely, and do NOT have TECHNICAL definitions in elisp.

library → elisp file(s) containing a collection of useful stuff. For example, the command comment-dwim is defined in newcomment.el, which is a library of functions.

package → any useful elisp library for emacs users. For example: major mode or minor mode.

The term “module” is not used by emacs.

Emacs's Concept of Feature

Elisp: provide, require, features

Package/Library/Feature are not Managed

There is no absolute relation between any concept of package/library/feature/autoload facilities and the file name.

By convention, if a elisp file name is xyz-mode.el, it OFTEN provides a lisp symbol “xyz-mode” as its feature name (if it does at all), and the command to invoke the mode is OFTEN named “xyz-mode”. Sometimes the “-mode” part is omitted in any of {file name, feature symbol name, command name}.

This is only a lose convention. There are a lot exceptions. For example:

All the above means, you could have a file named Joe-xyz-mode_v2.1.el, which provides a feature named “abc”, while the command name to activate it may be “opq”, and it might be displayed in mode line as “OPQ helper”. And, this file can be considered as a package or library.

Elisp, Writing Major Mode

  1. Syntax Coloring
  2. Font Lock Mode
  3. Define Face
  4. Color Comment
  5. Comment Command
  6. Your Own Comment Command
  7. Keyword Completion Command
  8. Create Keymap
  9. Abbrev/Template
  10. Text Properties
  11. Overlay Highlighting
  12. Lookup Doc
  13. Syntax Table

  1. How to Name Your Major Mode
  2. provide, require, features
  3. load, load-file, autoload

Elisp Syntax Table

  1. Character Type
  2. Syntax Table Tutorial
  3. Find Syntax of a Character
  4. Modify Syntax Table Temporarily
  5. is Cursor Inside String/Comment
  6. Regex Patterns and Syntax Table
  7. Find Matching Bracket Char

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