The Importance of Lisp

Lisp (also known as LISP) is a family of programming languages that have had a significant impact on the world of computing. Lisp has had and still has a great influence on the evolution of programming languages and computing theory as a whole. It remains a very easy language to learn and not that hard to master.

For those of you who don’t know what Lisp is, Lisp stands for “LISt Processor”. A Lisp program is made up of at least of at least one “list” which is indicated by an expression surrounded by parentheses. So for example, if you wanted to multiply 2 and 4, you would give an expression like this to a Lisp interpreter or compiler:

(* 2 4) ; Results in 8

The Lisp interpreter or compiler evaluates the contents of the list to produce a result. The first element of the list is the operator being used, in this case its multiplication (*). Any other items in the list are arguments given to the operator, in this case 2 and 4. If you are familiar with Polish Notation or Prefix Notation then this may look very similar, the only difference being the addition of parentheses to enclose the expression.

We can easily create compound expressions by just putting lists inside of lists like so:

(- 10 (/ 4 2)) ; Equivalent to 10 - (4 / 2)
(+ (* 2 2) (* 2 5)) ; Equivalent to (2 * 2) + (2 * 5)

It takes a bit of getting used to, but Lisp’s notation makes it very easy to string together compound expressions.

Practical Lisp

Nowadays there are two different major dialects of Lisp, Common Lisp and Scheme. There are not that many differences between Common Lisp and Scheme so I will use the Scheme dialect in the rest of these examples since I am familiar with it.

If we want to, we can define custom operators, functions, or variables just like in any other programming language. To do so in Scheme we use the define keyword:

(define x 24) ; Define the variable x as 24
(define mult *) ; Define the operator mult as multiplication
(define (circum radius) (* 2 3.14 radius)) ; Define circumference as 2 * π * radius

You may have noticed that we defined all three of these with the same define keyword, so what makes a variable different from a function? Nothing really. The great thing about Lisp is that almost everything defined under a define statement is treated the same. This means that almost anything we can do with variables we can do with functions and vice versa. So, for example, we can create a function like this:

(define (applyFunc func arg1 arg2) (func arg1 arg2))

This function, applyFunc, takes three arguments: a function and two arguments for the given function. It then applies the two arguments to the given function and spits out a result. We can test our applyFunc function like so:

(define (sum-of-squares x y) (+ (* x x) (* y y))) ; Same as x^2 + y^2
(applyFunc sum-of-squares 2 4)

Now this may look fairly useless at the moment because we can just call sum-of-squares directly and pass it arguments manually. However, being able to pass functions as arguments opens a whole new world of possibilities when it comes to programming.

Higher-Order Functions

This brings us to an important topic, anonymous functions using the lambda keyword. The lambda keyword creates a one-time use function, this can be very useful for passing to another function as an argument. As an example we can use a lambda function with our applyFunc function.

(applyFunc (lambda (x y) (* x y)) 2 4) ; Same a 2 * 4

The example above creates a one-time use function (lambda (x y) (* x y)) and passes it to applyFunc with the arguments 2 and 4. Although the result isn’t that spectacular, the implications of lambda functions opens up a whole new world of possibilities for programming that only exist in functional languages like Lisp. Functions that take functions or return functions are called higher-order functions.

Lisp was one of, if not the first language to implement higher-order functions in a programming language. Other high-level programming languages like Lua, Python, Haskell, and more followed suit much later.


Another important concept pioneered by Lisp in the world of programming is recursion. A function is a recursive function when it calls itself, pretty simple. Almost all recursive functions also have a base-case or exit clause in order to stop recurring, otherwise they run forever. If you still don’t understand recursion then read this sentence again. ;)

As an example, let’s translate the equation for Fibonacci numbers into a Lisp expression. The mathematical definition is a follows:

A translation from mathematical notation into Lisp would look like this:

(define (fib n)			  ; Begin function
(if (<= n 1) n			  ; If n <= 1 then return n
(+ (fib (- n 1)) (fib (- n 2))))) ; Else return fib(n-1) + fib(n-2)

As you can see, the fib function defined above calls itself until it meets the base requirements to end the recursive loop. Recursion makes it stupidly easy to translate recursive mathematical functions to Lisp expressions. Just like higher-order functions, Lisp was one of the first programming languages to implement this and other languages followed afterwards.

Hold Up

Now, before you go out and write your next project in Lisp, you should keep something in mind. Lisp is not the fastest or smallest language out there, it was not designed to be so. There are some pretty good implementations of Lisp out in the wild, but don’t expect them to outperform C, Go, Lua, or even Python most of the time.

If you’re going to program something in Lisp you should keep these things in mind:

If you value any three of these too much, then you might not want to write your program in Lisp. You probably don’t want to write a program that only takes up a few kilobytes in Lisp, nor would you want to write a program that needs millisecond speed either. However for all other needs Lisp works perfectly fine if not exceptionally great!

But this brings us back to the importance of Lisp altogether. Most people look at Lisp and see a language that innovated countless things in the field of programming languages, but eventually got replaced by newer languages. But Lisp as a language is still very much alive and making improvements and innovations to this day. It is still a very good programming language for tackling many tasks and remains one of my favorite programming languages.