In Swedish the expression "röd tråd" (literally "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 thought throughout the text.

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

It 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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    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. – SeanC Mar 7 '13 at 19:32
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    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
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    We have the same expression, "červená nit". Means a subtle theme, sometimes not explicitly stated. – Ondra Žižka Feb 2 '17 at 1:54
up vote 16 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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    "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
  • I remember my English teacher using "red thread", but it seems that it was a literal translation of the German "roter Faden" (equivalent to Swedish). – painfulenglish Nov 26 '14 at 5:59

In English, it’s a common thread.

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

The red thread as a metaphor for a consistent theme is not unique to Swedish. It probably originated not with Theseus, but with Goethe who wrote in Elective Affinities:

There is, we are told, a curious contrivance in the service of the English marine. The ropes in use in the royal navy, from the largest to the smallest, are so twisted that a red thread runs through them from end to end, which cannot be extracted without undoing the whole; and by which the smallest pieces may be recognized as belonging to the crown. Just so is there drawn through Ottilie's diary, a thread of attachment and affection which connects it all together, and characterizes the whole. 1

I couldn't find many instances of scarlet thread being used in the same sense in English. There is, however, a very famous speech made by Viscount Sankey in the landmark House of Lords case of Woolmington v DPP regarding the importance of the presumption of innocence in criminal law:

Throughout the web of the English Criminal Law one golden thread is always to be seen that it is the duty of the prosecution to prove the prisoner’s guilt subject to… the defence of insanity and subject also to any statutory exception. If, at the end of and on the whole of the case, there is a reasonable doubt, created by the evidence given by either the prosecution or the prisoner… the prosecution has not made out the case and the prisoner is entitled to an acquittal. No matter what the charge or where the trial, the principle that the prosecution must prove the guilt of the prisoner is part of the common law of England and no attempt to whittle it down can be entertained. 2

Genesis was written before Greek mythology existed, right? References to red/scarlet threads, then, come up first in the Old Testament.

Perhaps most famously, the harlot Rahab of the ancient city of Jericho, tied a scarlet cord in her window (she lived in the wall of the city). Eventually, when the walls of Jericho came down, she and her family were saved. (Joshua 2:1-21)

As far as "the red thread" being used for "theme":

Bible students sometimes refer to “the scarlet thread running through the Bible.” By this they mean that the Bible’s theme is Jesus Christ and His sacrifice for the redemption of mankind.

See this reference.

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    It’s not a safe bet to say that Genesis predates Greek mythology. Probably the opposite is true. According to Wikipedia, the currently predominant belief is that the earliest versions of Genesis probably date to some time in the early half of the first millennium BC; Greek mythology is definitely older than that. Great parts of Greek mythology can be traced back to common Indo-European mythology, several thousand years older, but even the more decidedly Greek mythology is attested in Mycenaean sites from the second millennium BC. – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 18 '17 at 16:06
  • Of course, it’s a different matter whether the specific myth of Theseus and the Minotaur dates back that far. Its events are usually placed towards the end of the second millennium BC, but whether the myth itself is much older or significantly younger is pretty much anyone’s guess. – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 18 '17 at 16:09
  • Thanks for the explanation and insight, Janus! I appreciate it! – thomj1332 May 18 '17 at 17:10

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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    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

protected by Community Nov 26 '14 at 9:19

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