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?

  • 4
    No worries Stu. I concur. "Email string" sounds ridiculous. – Lumberjack Nov 5 '13 at 21:42
  • This is just the next instantiation of a basic metaphor theme that's around 5 millennia old. – John Lawler Nov 6 '13 at 0:18
  • For a more technically appropriate answer, try asking on a tech Q&A such as SO. – Kris Nov 6 '13 at 6:11
  • 'Thread' has been in use in the programming field for as long as the sun and the earth. And various threads do come up everyday in that field. – Kris Nov 6 '13 at 6:13
  • I'm a programmer so I was looking for a non-technical perspective. – stu42j Nov 6 '13 at 15:55

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.)

  • My problem with the metaphor is that email threads are hierarchical. Maybe the thread unravels? – stu42j Nov 6 '13 at 15:58

The term threading is used to indicate a certain type of conversation viewing, particularly for message boards, Usenet, and email conversations, that tries to make the conversation easier to visualize by organizing the messages in a tree hierarchy. Threading is really best used with inline (or "interleaved") posting style on messages, as the tree hierarchy is vital to retrieving trimmed content from the interleaved messages.

A lot of modern email tools (eg: Microsoft Outlook) by default do not thread, and instead encourage users to engage in top-posting, which keeps all context in every message. Some people may refer to the context inside a top-posted email as a "thread", but one could argue that technically that isn't really a thread, and "string" is probably as good an alternate word for that as any other. Then again, if it "sounds stupid" then perhaps not. You could also argue that any path through the tree is a "thread", so that's still the proper word. (Personally I'd prefer to solve this quandary by not using top-posting, but I seem to be losing this particular battle).

The first threaded newsreader was nn in 1984, by Kim F. Storm. Ngrams couldn't find a reference for "threaded newsreader" prior to 1989, but I know firsthand the term was in use in the mid-80's on Usenet.

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