John Foderaro: Lisp is a Chameleon

(This is an excerpt from the influential article by John Foderaro in the September 1991 Communications of the ACM.)

Lisp is a chameleon. It has survived by adapting to changes in its surroundings. Moreover, Lisp has actually thrived on changes. When structured programming became popular in the 1970s, Lisp users immediately experimented with new structured control forms and the best ones were adopted as part of Lisp. Fortran programmers could only simulate structured constructs by enforcing a discipline on the use of goto statements.

Object-oriented programming (OOP) was another idea that spread through the community several years ago. The Smalltalk language demonstrated that OOP was a very useful approach for software development. Many versions of Lisp added OOP through the addition of an object system called Flavors, which went beyond Smalltalk and included multiple inheritance and method combination. Flavors added OOP to Lisp in a very natural way, without upsetting existing programs....

When Lisp adopts a new paradigm it not only replicates existing practice, but goes beyond it to become a testbed for advancing the state of the art. Why has Lisp been able to adapt so easily when other languages have not? One reason is that Lisp is a programmable programming language. Not only can you program in Lisp (that makes it a programming language) but you can program the language itself. This is possible, in part, because Lisp programs are represented as Lisp data objects, and partly because there are places during the scanning, compiling and execution of Lisp programs where user-written programs are given control. Contrast this with the C compiler, where the only user input to the compilation process is the ability to define macros that do simple string transformations on the source code.