Learn English – Etymology of “Email Thread”


What is the history of the word thread in the context of "email thread"? You can also say "thread of a conversation". How old is that usage?

Some of my colleagues say "email string" and it drives me crazy. Am I being overly pedantic in thinking that sounds stupid?

Best Answer

SUPPLEMENTAL to T.E.D.'s answer:
I cannot now recall when I first encountered a threaded chat, but I have always thought it a a particularly apt metaphor, marrying two different figurative uses of the verb thread:

  • to place beads or the like on a string to keep them together or form a chain. OED's earliest citation for that sense is 1633.

  • to successfully navigate a tortuous path ... OED's first citation for that sense is 1593. This is the sense in which we speak of following the thread of a conversation, typically used when the conversation is in some respect difficult to follow, because it is over one's head technically or because it is conducted with many references known only to the speakers. I'm pretty sure this metaphor goes back to the story of Theseus finding his way out of the Labyrinth after killing the Minotaur by following the thread which Ariadne provide him and which he unwound behind him as he went in. (Clue, by the way, comes from the same story: originally it was clew, a ball or hank of yarn.)