Do not run this command to 'test' it unless you are prepared for a crash and/or force-rebooting your system.

I was in my Virtualbox running 12.04 trying to compile an app, and while waiting I happened to chance upon a forum where a comment said:

Try :(){ :|: & };:
Fun, too, and doesn't need root.

Without thinking, I ran it in my gnome-terminal. It made my 12.04(in Virtualbox) lag so badly, I had to shut it down.

My question is what does this command do?

:(){ :|: & };:


This is called a fork bomb.

:() means you are defining a function called :

{:|: &} means run the function : and send its output to the : function again and run that in the background.

The ; is a command separator.

: runs the function the first time.

Essentially you are creating a function that calls itself twice every call and doesn't have any way to terminate itself. It will keep doubling up until you run out of system resources.

Running in Virtualbox was quite sensible really otherwise you would have had to restart your pc.

  • 27
    This answer seems to suggest that rebooting is the only recourse. But in fact this fork bomb can be killed without rebooting, and I’ve actually observed that it doesn’t work properly on some systems anyway (because their spawn limit is set sensibly). – Konrad Rudolph Jul 4 '12 at 14:07
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    Actually, for a full explanation this should probably mention that ; is a command separator. The { ... } part is simply the content of the function. – a CVn Jul 4 '12 at 14:08
  • @MichaelKjörling +1 I didn't even understand the syntax until I took into consideration your comments. – jumpnett Jul 11 '12 at 23:39
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    @SuperMatt I dont know if this question is still active, but anyway I wanted to know what does | and & do. I understand you have provided the working of the function but I wanted to do know what these two do – Noober Sep 26 '15 at 8:31
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    @Noober if your still wondering (as am I in this black hole of terse and cryptic documentation that is linux) I know! | is a pipe it is put after a command to send that commands output as the input to the command that follows. & is a fork it creates a new thread for the preceding command leaving the current thread to continue executing more commands – flurbius Mar 24 '16 at 6:41

This is a so called fork bomb implemented in shell.

from wikipedia:

:(){ :|:& };:
\_/| |||| ||\- ... the function ':', initiating a chain-reaction: each ':' will start    two more.
 | | |||| |\- Definition ends now, to be able to run ...
 | | |||| \- End of function-block
 | | |||\- disown the functions (make them a background process), so that the children    of a parent
 | | |||   will not be killed when the parent gets auto-killed
 | | ||\- ... another copy of the ':'-function, which has to be loaded into memory.
 | | ||   So, ':|:' simply loads two copies of the function, whenever ':' is called
 | | |\- ... and pipe its output to ...
 | | \- Load a copy of the function ':' into memory ...
 | \- Begin of function-definition
 \- Define the function ':' without any parameters '()' as follows:
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    Although it's a tangential point and the term 'disown' may be overloaded, technically, a process put into the background is not disowned and can always be brought to the foreground with the 'fg' command, and the process(es) will terminate if the user logs out (if there are still resources available to accomplish a logout).... unless and until one runs 'disown' on the process or jobid. After that it is indeed disowned: logging out will not terminate and fg has no effect. – Rondo Jan 29 '17 at 4:28
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    Although it's only a minor point, the parentheses do not mean there are no parameters in bash-like shells, they are only decoration left over from C-style languages. – Charlie Harding Jul 8 '18 at 20:15

That command is a well known version of the fork bomb

fork bomb pic from wikipedia

It causes your computer to run out of memory by forking a process infinitely. There exist some safeguards you can use against it as well:

Unix-type systems typically have a process-limit, controlled by a ulimit shell command or its successor, setrlimit. Linux kernels set and enforce the RLIMIT_NPROC rlimit ("resource limit") of a process. If a process tries to perform a fork and the user that owns that process already owns RLIMIT_NPROC processes, then the fork fails. Additionally, on Linux or *BSD, one can edit the pam_limits config file /etc/security/limits.conf to the same effect. However, not all distributions of Linux have the pam_limits module installed by default.


According to this :(){ :|: & };: is called

Forkbomb is a kind of poetic virus creator

...The devious little program commands it to make multiple copies of itself, setting off a chain reaction and thus quickly exhausting the system’s resources...

So advised not to run this, could cause damage to hardware since it causes loopwise execution, may cause heating easily in laptops.

Another link explains through screen shots here.

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    If a fork bomb causes hardware damage, then you have a much bigger and deeper problem. – a CVn Jul 4 '12 at 14:15
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    Maybe he was talking about a bomb with shape of fork that can explode near your PC ? – dysoco Jul 4 '12 at 18:02
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    The link for the screenshot is broken. – IMustBeSomeone Dec 3 '17 at 21:58

It is called a “fork-bomb”, as explained above, and another way of doing this would be to use background execution rather than piping:

:(){ :&:;};:

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