Calvin in chains

Today’s Calvin and Hobbes replay:


Calvin gets a chain letter directed right at him.

From a detailed Wikipedia entry:

A typical chain letter consists of a message that attempts to convince the recipient to make a number of copies of the letter and then pass them on to as many recipients as possible. In reality, the “chain” is actually a geometrically progressing pyramid that cannot be sustained indefinitely. Common methods used in chain letters include emotionally manipulative stories, get-rich-quick pyramid schemes, and the exploitation of superstition to threaten the recipient with bad luck or even physical violence or death if he or she “breaks the chain” and refuses to adhere to the conditions set out in the letter. Chain letters started as actual letters that one received in the mail. Today, chain letters are generally no longer actual letters. They are sent through email messages, postings on social network sites, and text messages.

There are two main types of chain letters:

  1. Hoaxes – Hoaxes attempt to trick or defraud users. A hoax could be malicious, instructing users to delete a file necessary to the operating system by claiming it is a virus. It could also be a scam that convinces users to send money or personal information. Phishing attacks could fall into this.
  2. Urban legends – Urban legends are designed to be redistributed and usually warn users of a threat or claim to be notifying them of important or urgent information. Another common form are the emails that promise users monetary rewards for forwarding the message or suggest that they are signing something that will be submitted to a particular group. Urban legends usually have no negative effect aside from wasted time.

In the United States, chain letters that request money or other items of value and promise a substantial return to the participants (such as the infamous Make Money Fast scheme) are illegal.

Some colleges and military bases have passed regulations stating that in the private mail of college students and military personnel, respectively, chain letters are not authorized and will be thrown out. However, it is often difficult to distinguish chain letters from genuine correspondence.

The oldest known channel for chain letters is written, or printed, on letters on paper. These might be exchanged hand-to-hand or distributed through the mail. One notorious early example was the “Prosperity Club” or “Send-a-Dime” letter. This letter started in Denver, Colorado in 1935, based on an earlier luck letter. It soon swamped the Denver post office with hundreds of thousands of letters before spilling into St. Louis and other cities.

An assortment of unpleasant consequences, ranging from the mild to the disastrous. Including the baleful effects of exponential growth.

Play time. The compound chain letter is subsective, at least in the historically original uses of the compound: chain letters are letters, in this sense from NOAD2:

letter: a written, typed, or printed communication, especially one sent in an envelope by mail or messenger

Now, of course, letter (and mail with it) has been extended to other sorts of communications, especially electronic.

Meanwhile, the semantic relationship between the elements of the compound chain letter is one of a canonical set of such relationships, Whole-Part, conveying location within or inside: a chain letter is a letter that’s part of a chain, in this sense from NOAD2:

chain: a sequence or series of connected elements

Given all this, chain mail would be a natural variant of chain letter, but it seems not to occur in that sense — in part, because idioms are as they are, and tolerate only certain substitutions for their parts; but more significantly, because chain mail is itself a fixed expression, conventionalized with a different sense of chain and a different sense of mail:

chain: a connected flexible series of metal links used for fastening or securing objects and pulling or supporting loads

mail: historical   armor made of metal rings or plates, joined together flexibly

chain mail: armor made of small metal rings linked together


(Note: chain mail is then a subsective compound: chain mail is a kind of mail. And the semantic relationship between its elements is Material-Product, conveying the material of which some product is made: chain mail is mail made of chains.)

Now things are set up for some language play on chain mail, nicely realized in a cartoon by the artist Jorodo, which shows a man in chain mail looking at a computer screen with


on it. A play on the YOU HAVE MAIL message that appears on your screen in some computer systems to announce that the user has incoming e-mail.

(The rights to the cartoon are held by a company that charges a fee for distributing the image, so I’m not reproducing it here, but merely describing it. The company supplies no information about the artist, so I can’t tell you anything about Jorodo.)

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