The Grammarphobia Blog

Thready or not

Q: Having a grammar insurrection in a non-grammar thread on the Lost Des Moines Facebook site. Hence a question about etymology. How did “thread” come to be used in this way?

A: The word “thread” has been used this way in writing since the 1980s, according examples in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED says this use of “thread” means “a linked sequence of posts or messages relating to the same subject on a newsgroup or (now more usually) an Internet forum.”

The earliest examples in the dictionary are, naturally, from newsgroup postings.

The first appeared on May 30, 1984, in a Usenet group, net.news, under the heading “Beta Testers for Readnews Replacem. Wanted.” The relevant sentence reads:

“When following subject threads, the next article with the same subject is located while the last page of the previous article is being read.”

Later that same year, a second example appeared in another Usenet group, fa.info-mac, under the heading “Re: Macintosh Devel. Techniques.”

The message, posted on Dec. 4, 1984, reads: “This would be a very interesting thread for experienced Mac programmers on info-mac.”

The term was so useful that it was bound to catch on. Here’s another example from the OED: “A self-described ‘overpackaholic’ started a thread in the Travel Forum.” (From CompuServe Magazine, 1994.)

We should note that “thread” had an earlier and much more technical meaning in the terminology of computer programming.

The OED says this sense of the word, which dates to the early 1970s, means “a programming structure or sequence of operations formed by linking a number of separate elements or subroutines; esp. each of the parts of a program executed concurrently in multithreading.” (Got that?)

Here’s the dictionary’s earliest example, from Proceedings of the First European Seminar on Computing With Real-Time Systems (1972):

“The present research is aimed at investigating the costs of using a common program for different machines, and this leads to the concept of ‘single-thread programming.’ ”

The less technical sense of “thread”—a linked series of messages on the same subject—is just the latest figurative use of an extremely old noun.

“Thread” came from old Germanic sources and was first recorded around the year 725 in a Latin-Old English glossary.

Nearly 1,300 years later, its literal meaning remains basically unchanged—a fine cord of fibers of some material spun or twisted together.

Figurative usages have abounded over the centuries, Oxford says, with “thread” used metaphorically to mean “something figured as being spun or continuously drawn out like a thread.”

The figurative spinning out can refer to the course of a life, a conversation or argument, one’s thoughts, a persistent or recurring theme, and so on.

Finally, on a less poetic note, “threads” has been American slang for “clothes” since the Roaring Twenties.

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