Wen Chuan Lee
6 min read


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Awk allows you to set a command as a variable, execute it and collect the output in another variable for further processing. But you’ll have to mess around and be weary of different versions of awk. So, a lot of back and forth with StackOverflow or GPT.


CSV is super portable and often the format many developers reach for as it plays well with tools ranging from Excel and Quip, all the way down to terminal tools, as well as major programming languages that support comma separated values.

Given a CSV (comma separated value) file like so:

cat example.csv


I had a use case to invoke an external command, or to ‘shell-out’ and append the result into another column.

For the purpose of this blog, let’s say we had a script, md5.sh that would either accept input from stdin or as the first $1 parameter.

if [ -p /dev/stdin ]; then
    while read line; do
        # cut removes the '-' on the md5sum output
        printf "%s" "$line" | md5sum | cut -d' ' -f1 
    if [ $# -eq 1 ]; then
        printf "%s" "$1" | md5sum | cut -d' ' -f1

My initial instinct was to do a cut to extract the column I want to run a command for, for the purpose of this article let’s assume I needed to use md5sum. And we’d extract the first column (so jane, john, alice, bob)

It would go something like:

$ cat example.csv | cut -d, -f 1 | ./md5.sh


(Note: I can use md5sum, but md5sum receives the entire input, new lines and all, hence I have to break it up. You also get a - in the output. In my original use-case the command I was going to invoke simply processes line by line and outputs a result per-line. Without the script above, you’d need the extra while loops: cat example.csv | cut -d, -f 1 | while read -r line; do echo -n $line | md5sum; done)

Then with that md5 output, I’d typically give up on the terminal, pop on VSCode or Sublime Text, or even Excel, and copy and paste the output as a new column.

But that’s no fun! Getting some help from ChatGPT taught me about Awk allowing you to invoke a command as a variable during the output!

awk -F',' '{ cmd="command_to_invoke" cmd $0 | getline result; close(cmd); print result","$0","$1}'

Giving credit to GPT3.5 Turbo:

Within awk, we assign command_to_invoke to variable cmd. Then, we use getline with variable result and pipe it into cmd. After that, we close(cmd). Finally, we print each line followed by a comma and value of field 1 ($0”,”result).

Awk for years has been daunting to me, so slowly breaking it down helps.

So using MD5, it would look something like:

cat example.csv | awk -F',' '{ cmd="./md5.sh "; (cmd $0 | getline result); close(cmd); print $0","result}'

Then you’d get a very nice output!


AWK itself has been confusing for me throughout the years. So breaking this down step by step:

  • cat example.csv will pipe out the contents of the file into AWK
  • -F',' defines you want to separate the string on ‘,’
  • cmd="./md5.sh " creates a variable in awk and allows for commands to be executed. Note the extra space after the script name, it’s necessary otherwise AWK will not leave a space in between the command and the value passed in.
  • cmd $1 tells AWK to run the cmd variable with $1, which in our example above, be jane, john, alice, bob.
  • | getline result will store the output of the executed command (output of md5.sh)
  • close(cmd) simply closes the temporary files created
  • Finally, the print command dictates $0 (the whole string), and "," and the "result"

Update Turns out the command above might also include the return code, depending on the script and version of awk. Here’s another one to try: cat example.csv| awk -F',' '{ cmd="./md5.sh "$1 ;while ( ( cmd | getline result ) > 0 ) {print result","$0 } close(cmd)}'

Hope this was helpful!

But… there’s more! If you actually tried following it along on your system, it might not work. What gives? Why did this random internet stranger lie to you?

$ cat example.csv | awk -F',' '{ cmd="./md5.sh " cmd $1 | getline result; close(cmd); print result }'
/bin/sh: 1: jane: not found

/bin/sh: 1: john: not found

/bin/sh: 1: alice: not found

/bin/sh: 1: bob: not found

Turns out, there’s multiple variants of awk. Eg. GNU Awk (gawk), mawk, awk (itself), nawk.

One of these end up in your box as awk. When I was writing this blog post, I decided to test it out again as I go (so I don’t waste your time, dear reader), and was stuck on this for the longest time (1.5 hours of me questioning if I missed a space somewhere or I wasn’t escaping something right, as it was incorrectly treating $1 as a command - According to history I tried over 290 times. sigh). The laptop I write on was similar compared to the host I had in the cloud in that it was GNU/Linux based, but the differences were way more!

You will want to try awk --version. If you get this, then it might work for you.

awk --version

GNU Awk 5.1.0, API: 3.0 (GNU MPFR 4.1.0, GNU MP 6.2.1)
Copyright (C) 1989, 1991-2020 Free Software Foundation.

This program is free software; you can redistribute it and/or modify
it under the terms of the GNU General Public License as published by
the Free Software Foundation; either version 3 of the License, or
(at your option) any later version.

This program is distributed in the hope that it will be useful,
but WITHOUT ANY WARRANTY; without even the implied warranty of
GNU General Public License for more details.

You should have received a copy of the GNU General Public License
along with this program. If not, see http://www.gnu.org/licenses/.

On my laptop (and on my other system), I got

$ awk --v
awk: not an option: --v

$ awk -W version

mawk 1.3.4 20200120
Copyright 2008-2019,2020, Thomas E. Dickey
Copyright 1991-1996,2014, Michael D. Brennan

random-funcs:       srandom/random
regex-funcs:        internal
compiled limits:
sprintf buffer      8192
maximum-integer     2147483647

It appears that different variants react differently. You can get GNU Awk if you’re on a debian based system with sudo apt-get install gawk. It’ll even override mawk!

This command cat example.csv| awk -F',' '{ cmd="./md5.sh " cmd $1 | getline result; close(cmd); print $0","$result}' worked for me on GNU Awk 4.0.2, while on the newer version I had to put parentheses correctly. So, play around… as I have timeboxed my attempts.

Finally, be weary about the CSV you handle, you are susceptible to shell injection using awk.