You are reading about GNU Emacs, the GNU incarnation of the advanced, self-documenting, customizable, extensible real-time display editor Emacs. (The `G' in `GNU' is not silent.)
We say that Emacs is a display editor because normally the text being edited is visible on the screen and is updated automatically as you type your commands. See section The Organization of the Screen.
We call it a real-time editor because the display is updated very frequently, usually after each character or pair of characters you type. This minimizes the amount of information you must keep in your head as you edit. See section Basic Editing Commands.
We call Emacs advanced because it provides facilities that go beyond simple insertion and deletion: controlling subprocesses; automatic indentation of programs; viewing two or more files at once; editing formatted text; and dealing in terms of characters, words, lines, sentences, paragraphs, and pages, as well as expressions and comments in several different programming languages.
Self-documenting means that at any time you can type a special character, Control-h, to find out what your options are. You can also use it to find out what any command does, or to find all the commands that pertain to a topic. See section Help.
Customizable means that you can change the definitions of Emacs commands in little ways. For example, if you use a programming language in which comments start with `<**' and end with `**>', you can tell the Emacs comment manipulation commands to use those strings (see section Manipulating Comments). Another sort of customization is rearrangement of the command set. For example, if you prefer the four basic cursor motion commands (up, down, left and right) on keys in a diamond pattern on the keyboard, you can rebind the keys that way. See section Customization.
Extensible means that you can go beyond simple customization and write entirely new commands, programs in the Lisp language to be run by Emacs's own Lisp interpreter. Emacs is an "on-line extensible" system, which means that it is divided into many functions that call each other, any of which can be redefined in the middle of an editing session. Almost any part of Emacs can be replaced without making a separate copy of all of Emacs. Most of the editing commands of Emacs are written in Lisp already; the few exceptions could have been written in Lisp but are written in C for efficiency. Although only a programmer can write an extension, anybody can use it afterward. If you want to learn Emacs Lisp programming, we recommend the Introduction to Emacs Lisp by Robert J. Chassell, also published by the Free Software Foundation.
When run under the X Window System, Emacs provides its own menus and convenient bindings to mouse buttons. But Emacs can provide many of the benefits of a window system on a text-only terminal. For instance, you can look at or edit several files at once, move text between files, and edit files while running shell commands.