Mapping over table rows in org-mode

I’m an Emacs guy, and so if I’ve got some simple tabular data I’d much rather keep it in an org-mode table than have to fire up Excel.

Here’s an example:

#+NAME: pap-table
| first name  | last name | yearly-income |
| Mr          | Bennett   |          2000 |
| Fitzwilliam | Darcy     |         10000 |
| Charles     | Bingley   |          5000 |

If the prospect of having to keep all those | characters manually aligned is freaking you out, don’t worry—orgtbl-mode does it all for you automatically.

Now, I often want to get my functional programming on and apply a function to all the rows of the table. Org-mode does have some special syntax with bunch of cool features for doing arithmetic on the cells (just like Excel formulas) but I’m usually happier just writing regular elisp to get the job done.

The nicest1 way I’ve found to do this is to give the table a name (in the example above the table name is pap-table—can you guess why?). Then, you can tell an elisp code block about the data in that table like so (note the :var table=pap-table at the start):

#+BEGIN_SRC emacs-lisp :var table=pap-table
   (lambda (row)
     (cl-destructuring-bind (first last income) row
        (format "Mr. %s is a man of %s fortune; %s a year."
                (if (< income 2500) "small" "large")

Then, when you evaluate the code block with C-c C-c (or just , , in Spacemacs) it’ll return the “result”:

| Mr. Bennett is a man of small fortune; 2000 a year. |
| Mr. Darcy is a man of large fortune; 10000 a year.  |
| Mr. Bingley is a man of large fortune; 5000 a year. |

This is really handy, as you can imagine. I use it for all sorts of things, including sending “mail merge” emails with template values (since I also use Emacs as my mail client—sending an email is just an elisp function call away).


There are a few “tricks” in the above process which took me a while to figure out, so hopefully by listing them here I can save others a bunch of time & hassle.

  • The elisp doesn’t actually know about the column names from the table—I had to re-bind them in the code block using cl-destructuring-bind. Make sure you change the bindings if you change the names/order of the columns in the table!

  • Org-mode tables don’t have a way of specifying the column “type”, so while it’ll try it’s best with the basics (e.g. detecting strings vs numbers) sometimes it gets confused. It’s probably worth putting an explicit e.g. string-to-number in if you want to be sure.

  • In the example above my elisp block returns a value (a list, since I’m using -map from the excellent dash.el library) and that’s why the results get nicely formatted in the results block. If your code is side-effectful but doesn’t return a value then you see the results in that place, you’ll have to look elsewhere (e.g. if you call message you’ll need to look in the *Messages* buffer as usual).

  • Further to the previous caveat, you’ll notice that I’m actually wrapping the result of the inner lambda in another list, so the output of the code block is actually a list of lists. I could have just returned a list of the strings, but then it would be interpreted as an 1×n table, rather than the (nicer looking on the page) n×1 table shown above.

  1. if there’s a nicer way, please let me know