A chain letter is a written correspondence which requires some action on the part of the recipient. These letters sometimes ask the receiver to send an object (a recipe, a kind word, a dish towel) to the person at the top of a list of names, remove the top person's name from the list, then place their own name at the bottom of that list. After doing this, the recipient is supposed to send the modified copy to a number of their friends. The idea is that by the time your name finally gets to the top of the list, some tens of thousands of people will be sending you an object (a recipe or whatever). At one time this was done with money... you would send $1 (rather than a kind word), and receive $10,000. The US Postal Service decided this wasn't such a good idea, and made chain letters that asked for money illegal.
The newest rage in chain letters is the e-mail chain letter. These letters usually only ask that you pass the letter on to ten of your closest friends (who will not be your friends after you send it), without requiring that you send them a towel. While sometimes they portend certain doom if the letter is not passed along, the e-mail chain letter usually promises luck, or love if you do.
These promises usually come in the way of stories about people who have elected not to continue the chain. They tell of Heather who did not pass this letter along, and was beheaded in the most awful car accident on record. What they do not tell you is how the letter transcended time. If poor Heather got the letter and didn't pass it along, and therefore died a most horrible death, how is it possible for the letter to be about her? She would have to have gotten the letter before it was actually written, or the letter couldn't have been written about her. On the other hand, if the letter had managed to somehow tell the future, then when poor Heather got the letter, wouldn't she have gone ahead and passed it along to avoid certain death?
When we explore the secondary definitions of 'chain' in the New College Edition of The American Heritage Dictionary we find the following:Chain
- Anything that restrains or confines.
- Bond, fetters, or shackles.
- Captivity or oppression; bondage.
The definition of the chain letter thus becomes very clear.