McCarthy wrote a paper describing a Lisp function that would interpret any
Lisp function, including itself. This function,
eval, is like a
universal Turing machine. The Lisp language he described was a universal
language that could implement all other languages. In fact, this latter is truer
than you might at first think - many modern top end compilers are written in
languages which, if not actually Lisp, at least are morally Lisp. The first
Fortran compiler for UNIX, f77, was written in Lisp. Those of you who use
GNUemacs may be interested to know that it is written mainly in Lisp.
Lisp never looked back. From Lisp 1 there spawned dozens of Lisps, each exploring its own niche of computer science, each choosing a set of ideas to develop, each picking a new set of names for the basic functions. Lisp is not a language, it is a family of languages: a family tree can be constructed showing the major paths of development. Unfortunately, this profusion of dialects, like the Tower of Babel, has lead to a state where any particular Lisp program may or may not run on a particular implementation of Lisp. Or if your program does run, it may do something entirely contrary to your expectation.
This may seem a disaster to a Fortran programmer, who wants her program to run on any compiler on any machine. But the diversity has led to important developments and cross-fertilization of ideas, as perhaps, objects from one branch are merged with logic programming from another to confront pure functional forms from a third.
There are a few things common to all Lisps: lists and atoms, the function
cons to construct lists, and the functions
cdr to take them apart.
McCarthy implemented his Lisp on an IBM 704 whose instruction format had
four sections named cpr (contents of the prefix register), ctr (contents of the
tag register), car (contents of the address register), cdr (contents of the
decrement register). The way he arranged things was when he referred to a
car would be in the address register, the
cdr in the decrement register...and the names just stuck.
Lisp, on the other hand, is a ball of mud. Essentially shapeless,
you can easily add new extensions and ideas, and all you get is a
larger ball of mud ready and able to accept more and more.
Lisp is infinitely extensible: you can add new functions that have exactly the
same importance to the system as the built-in commands, or even redefine the
built-in commands. You can, if you feel that way inclined, redefine the whole
syntax. Imagine the possibilities if C allowed you to redefine the
while loop, or Fortran let you introduce exactly that form of
DO loop that you required for your application.
Over the years many important new ideas have first been tried out using Lisp. Optimizing compilers were first written in Lisp. The idea of tail recursion removal was implemented in Lisp compilers as early as 1962. Only since the late '80 have other languages caught on: C compilers are beginning to spot the advantages of tail recursion. Object oriented systems and object oriented graphics were first developed using Lisp. Similarly were pure functional ideas, and logic programming and rewrite systems. Other languages have subsequently been conceived (Prolog, ML, C++) that are based on these ideas, but they were all prototyped in Lisp.
Lisp typically runs as an interpreter, using a read-eval-print loop.
This loop sits and waits for input, reads it, evaluates the expression it has
read, and then prints the result. (As an aside, the read-eval-print loop is often
written in Lisp, and could be redefined into something more exotic, such as a
control program for some piece of machinery.) This interactive use is one of
the reasons Lisp is so important as a prototyping tool: a function can be tried,
and altered, and then re-tried as often as you wish, and function call always
refers to the latest definition of a function. Thus if you define
foo, and then
bar which calls
foo, you can define
bar in the knowledge
foo will use your new definition. (This is somewhat like
the language Forth (which was developed using the idea from Lisp, of course).)