what happened when defining a symbol to be something else?

First you asked Scheme to evaluate (define 'E 123). Let’s put a quote in front of that, to see what it looks like without the ' shorthand. You can always do this: quote any expression to ask Scheme, “What do you think this value is?”

 > '(define 'E 123)
=> (define (quote E) 123)

Well, in Scheme, (define (x ...) ...) is a shorthand for (define x (lambda (...) ...)): it’s just a convenient shorthand for defining a function. So in this case (define (quote E) 123) is the same as (define quote (lambda (E) 123)). Thus, the symbol you are redefining is quote, and you define it to be a function of one parameter which always returns 123.

Next you asked to evaluate 'E. Again let’s expand that to look through the shorthand:

 > ''E
=> (quote E)

You now call the quote function you defined, and pass it the variable E as an argument. But E has not previously been defined, so this fails. If you wanted to, you could first define E to have any value, and then perhaps 'E would return 123. It rather depends on what Scheme evaluator you are using: the one I found does not much appreciate it when you try to redefine quote, but apparently yours does not mind, so I suspect you would get 123, and that you would get the same result if you defined abc and then evaluated 'abc.

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