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In Swedish the expression Röd tråd (Red thread) is used to describe that something follows a theme. For instance, if a piece of text has a "red thread", it's written with a consistent though through out the text.

The expression originates from the Greek mythology where king Theseus found his way out of Minotaur's labyrinth by following a "red thread".

I could also be derived from that formerly a red thread were found twisted in some cordage belonging to the English Navy. In a figurative sense first used by Goethe in his work Wahlverwandschaften.

Is this used in the same way in English or is there another expression that is more commonly used?

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3  
leitmotif comes immediately to mind. It has that meaning in English even if that isn't its original literal meaning –  Kate Gregory Mar 7 '13 at 14:11
    
the only wording I can think of that is close in English is "red tape" and that has a completely different meaning to a thread. –  Sean Cheshire Mar 7 '13 at 19:32
1  
Aside: Ariadne's Thread, Breadcrumb. –  coleopterist Mar 8 '13 at 2:24
    
+1 For "Breadcrumb" being used in a sense derived from the myth. (Although, if I'm understanding the Swedish idiom correctly, "breadcrumb" would not fit that.) Actually, maybe the 'breadcrumb' I'm thinking of is more directly derived from Hansel & Gretel ... –  hunter2 Jul 5 '13 at 7:22

4 Answers 4

up vote 11 down vote accepted

The word thread itself has such a sense.

From Merriam-Webster, sense 3b:

A continuing element <a thread of melancholy marked all his writing>

I do not recall ever seeing 'red thread' used in English in such a sense.

In Chinese legend, a red thread of destiny is tied by the gods "around the ankles of those that are to meet one another in a certain situation or help each other in a certain way".

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1  
"red thread" is used in Russian in such sense, and, interestingly, this expression is said to originate from red strands in ropes used by British Royal Navy. –  Kreiri Mar 7 '13 at 15:31
    
@Kreiri Which sense? Swedish (~theme) or Chinese (~fate)? –  hunter2 Jul 5 '13 at 7:18
    
@hunter2 "theme" –  Kreiri Jul 5 '13 at 7:22

Sherlock Holmes once remarked to Dr Watson: 'There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life...' (A Study in Scarlet)

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6  
But there, "scarlet" is the color of blood, not intrinsic to the "thread" –  Charles Mar 8 '13 at 2:36

In English, it’s a common thread.

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Your Swedish "Red Thread" equates to the English "Breadcrumb trail". Like the Red Thread's origin in Greek mythology, the breadcrumb trail idea comes from the story of Hansel and Gretel.

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1  
It does not equate to that, no. The two expressions do not mean the same thing. A red thread is uniquely used to refer to the consistency and ‘togetherness’ (or lack thereof) in some type of narrative or something viewed as a narrative. The breadcrumb trail is also used in Swedish (or at least in Danish) in the same sense as in English, but the two are not equivalent. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 26 '13 at 16:18

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