GLOSSARY for Paper Chain Letters
Daniel W. VanArsdale

This is a list of terms and their definitions that have been applied to paper chain letters in publications and in the online essay Chain Letter Evolution. The links named "CLEVO" after entries below are to appropriate text in Chain Letter Evolution

Here are related files in the /chain-letter/ directory.

evolution.html  Chain Letter Evolution - analysis and history of paper chain letters
bibliography.htm  Annotated Bibliography on chain letters and pyramid schemes
glossary.htm  Definitions of terms used for paper chain letters - THIS FILE
/archive/!content  Annotated index for the The Paper Chain Letter Archive - list of linked filenames for individual chain letters
/archive/!information.htm  Information on formats and file naming conventions for the archive
/e-archive/!content-e  Annotated index for email chains used in Chain Letter Evolution - list of linked filenames
//photo-archive/!content-ph  Annotated index for photos and their descriptions - list of linked filenames

The following terms are used and presumed known in many of the definitions here: Category, Chain letter, Circulation, Compliance, Copy, Copy quota, Deadline, Descent group (clade), Founder, Luck chain letter, Outlier, Predominant series, Propagation, Testimonial, Type .

Advocacy.  A motivational category of chain letters. These promote a cause, other than religion, without a request for money. They often take the form of a petition.  Chain announcements and invitations are also included in this category. [1899]

Ambiguity.  For luck chain letters: contradictory statements and testimonials, or a lack of specificity, concerning what recipient behavior may or may not produce good or bad luck. For example, will merely passing on the received copy avoid bad luck? Must you meet the deadline to receive good luck for distributing copies? Also misleading details concerning the possible national or religious source of a chain letter. Might "Bishop Lawrence", a well known Episcopalian author [1906], appear Protestant to Protestant readers and Catholic to Catholic readers? Ambiguity apparently increases circulation by accommodating multiple interpretations.

Affirmation. A statement in a luck chain letter which, speaking as an observer, affirms a prior claim in the letter, or the overall effectiveness of the letter. Example: "It is positively remarkable how many times this prediction has been fulfilled since this chain was started." [1926] Seen in chain letters from 1926 to 1940. The hyper-competetive "It works" postscript, on DL type letters from 1978 can be interpreted as a revival of the Affirmation. The term is also used for corrupted or rewritten derivatives of some initial Affirmation.

Ancestor.  An ancestor of a replicator L is a parent of L, or a parent of a parent, or a parent of a parent of a parent, etc.

Ancestry.  For a replicator L in a clade C, the ancestry of L in C is L and all its ancestors in C. Note that for convenience we include L itself in its "ancestry".

Ancient Prayer.  A mainline type of luck chain letter characterized by (1) copy quota nine and deadline nine days, (2) a brief prayer, often said to be from Jesus' time, and (3) a promise of "great joy" within nine or ten days if the recipient complies. Circulated (mostly on postcards) in the US from 1906 into to the 1920's with changed copy quota in later years. European circulation started much earlier.  [1906]

Archiving instructions.  For some ancient documents, text or associated traditions which if followed may result in the long term preservation of the document. For example, instructions to place a document in scented wrappings, or the tradition of placing a document in tombs.

Belief title.  For chain letters, the King James version of Matthew 21:22 (and corruptions):  "And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive." Appeared as a title (substituted for Proverbs) around 1981 on Death-Lottery letters. Example: 1980CLEVO

Blind13.  A predominant luck chain letter type originally titled "The Chain of St. Anthony" [1936]. Later versions dropped mention of St. Anthony and were usually mailed by postcard [1941]. They had copy quota, deadline and waiting period all thirteen and featured a testimonial threatening blindness to a family member. CLEVO

Bloomsbury letter.  The standard example for the Death20 type luck chain letter. The earliest known quota twenty luck chain letter, mailed from Bloomsbury, New Jersey on Oct. 13, 1959.

Boss Wins Lottery.  The testimonial (and its variants): "Constantine Diso received the chain in 1953. He asked his secretary to make 24 copies and send them. A few days later, he won the lottery of 2 million dollars in his country" [US, 1974]. Appears on the Lottery24 block of DL and LD type luck chain letters and on foreign examples [Brazil, 1994].  CLEVO

Brill letter.  A humorous rewrite of a Death-Lottery letter that (1) claimed to have originated in the Brill Building,  (2) asked that 30 copies be distributed, and (3) originally contained long lists of celebrity names. Circulated from around 1979 - 1980. Example: 1979CLEVO

Capture.  Replacement of all the other chain letters in a motivational niche by the descendants of a single variation. The successful variation is then called hyper-competitive.  See funneling eventCLEVO

Car testimonial.  The Lose-Win testimonial: "In 1987, the letter received by a young woman in California was very faded and barely readable. She promised herself she would type the letter, and send it on, but she put it aside to do it later. She was plagued with various problems including expensive car repairs.  The letter did not leave her hands within 96 hours. She finally typed the letter as promised and got a new car" [U.S., 1990]. First appeared on Love titled Death-Lottery letters around 1988. CLEVO

Category.  A principal motive for replication of a group of chain letters. The broadest classification of chain letters. Paper chain letter categories (in historical order) are:  religion, charity, advocacy, luck, money, parody, exchange  and world record.

Chain email.  Any frequently forwarded email. A chain email may reference a WWW page, or derive from one.

Chain letter.  A letter that explicitly directs the recipient to distribute copies of itself. Some modification of the letter may be requested before making copies, such as the updating of a list of senders. Depending on context, "chain letter" may refer to the content of the letter rather than to a single physical letter. The term "chain letter" may have first appeared in 1889, judging from newspaper archives. 

Chain of Good Luck. A predominant luck chain letter type that circulated from 1949 to 1952, perhaps topping circulation in the US for a year or two. Much international content. Said to have been started by a French officer. Copy quota 12, deadline 72 hours. Most had a Roosevelt testimonial.

Chain publication.  A text of unknown authorship which is mostly read from serial publications, with editing. Examples include the Jesus' Sabbath letter and the Food for Thought story of ill-fated tycoons.

Charity chain letter.  A chain letter that requests money or some item be sent to a fixed address, ostensibly for charitable, political or memorial purposes.  CLEVO

Circulation.  For a chain letter variation V at time t, the number of V that exists at time t which will be conveyed to a new host. CLEVO

Circumnavigation statement.  A request on a chain letter that it is to go all over the world, or that it is to go around the world. Or a claim that the letter has already gone around the world some number of times.  CLEVO

Clade.  A group of replicators consisting of a founder and all its descendants. A monophyletic group. A descent group of chain letters.

Clone.  A replicator C which is an identical copy of a previously existing replicator P. We then say C is a clone of P. Chain letters which bear an updated senders list are not clones. Chain letter clones are generally produced by photocopying, though they could be produced by the use of carbon paper and other obsolete methods of reproduction, and even by careful retyping. 

Clone group. A non-clone founder plus all its clone descendants (if any exist). Clone groups form the natural units in considering the relationship of variations in a system of replicators in which clones predominate.

Co-linked features. Features G and H are co-linked if one is always present on a letter when the other is, barring a deletion. CLEVO

Compliance. Distribution of at least one copy (possibly the received copy) of a chain letter within one month of its receipt. Full compliance is distribution of the entire copy quota within a stated or implied deadline. CLEVO

Comply-Win testimonial.  Any chain letter testimonial purporting that a prior recipient distributed the quota of copies and subsequently received good luck. Compare to a Win testimonialCLEVO.

Component.  Consecutive and closely related text in a chain letter that may affect propagation. For example, a testimonial or instruction. Components may be variously identified: "Do not send money, for fate has no price" can be construed as a single component or two adjacent components. A chain letter component corresponds to a meme, as defined by Richard Dawkins in 1976.

Concurrent features.  Features X and Y are concurrent if it is somehow known (or hypothesized) that they both first appeared on the same single letter L. This means X and Y appear together on all chain letters descended from L, barring deletions of one or the other. See co-linked features.

Controlled list.  A list of prior senders on a chain letter accompanied by an instruction to (i) delete the name in the top slot, (ii) move the remaining names up one slot, and (iii) add the recipient's name in the bottom slot. Often addresses are also present and moved. First appears in our sample on a 1932 luck chain letter [1932].

Copy.  A fundamental concept in any evolutionary system. Chain letter C is a copy of letter P if P was used to produce almost all of the text of C, as by hand copying or photocopying. P is then a parent of C. New variations, errors, deletions or additions may appear on copy C, but copying must be sufficiently accurate that characteristics that affect replication are transmitted. Chain letter C is an identical copy (clone) of letter P if it is identical as a character string, including fonts and formatting. 

Copy First.  Applied to text in a luck chain letter that implies: (1) one must fully meet the quota and deadline first to receive good luck, (2) failure to distribute the letter by the deadline results in bad luck and (3) ambiguously, distribution of the quota after the deadline may bring good luck that outweighs the bad luck previously endured. Copy First text dominates the Lottery24 type chain letter. CLEVO

Copy Later.  Applied to text in a luck chain letter that implies: (1) mere receipt of the chain letter brings good luck, (2) one who has received such good luck risks losing everything they have received, or much more, if they fail to circulate the letter and (3) ambiguously, merely passing on the received letter can avoid bad luck. Copy Later text dominates the Death20 type chain letter. CLEVO

Copy quota.  The number of copies that a chain letter asks the recipient to distribute. This includes the original copy if the letter asks that it be distributed also. CLEVO

Core Network. Of a chain letter transmission network, the largest group of habitual senders all connected by a transmission path, disregarding the direction of flow. CLEVO

Corruption.  A textual variation (as compared to what is present on some standard letter) that has resulted from the accumulation of one or more unintended copying errors.

Cousin. One chain letter is the cousin of another if they are both members of some clade under discussion, but are members of different major sub-clades. Usually the letters are understood to circulate at about the same time.

Craig Shergold Appeal. An appeal for get well cards started by the parents of Craig Shergold on Sept. 24, 1989. Craig, ten years old at the time, was suffering from cancerous tumors in the brain and spine. The goal was to set a Guinness record for collections of manufactured articles (1,266,000 required). By March 1993, over 100,000,000 cards had been received despite attempts to halt the appeal. Successful surgery on Craig had been performed in 1991. Chain letters were a component of the appeal. These first had a quota of five, then ten. Later a version appeared that asked that business cards be sent instead of get well cards. (Guigne, 1993)

Cryptoid.  A group of letters or symbols that have become meaningless yet are still faithfully copied. Cryptoids are highly vulnerable to further corruption.

Currency chain.  A message on a bill that encourages readers to copy it on other bills. See Olbrys. CLEVO

Dawkins, Richard.  British biologist and author, introduced the concept of a "meme" in The Selfish Gene (Oxford Univ. Press, 1976). With Oliver Goodenough, interpreted a DL letter using viral analogies ("The St. Jude Mind Virus," Nature, Sept. 1, 1994).

Deadline.  A stated interval of time that a chain letter allows a recipient to complete distribution of copies; or, ambiguously, to pass on the received copy. If a deadline is not explicitly stated, the number of days after which bad luck allegedly befalls those who have not circulated the letter. Deadlines are often expressed in hours. Example: Do not keep this letter, it must leave your hands within 96 hours.  CLEVO

Death and Money.  The following testimonial, or a variant: "While in the Philippines, General Walsh lost his life six days after receiving his copy.  He failed to circulate the prayer.  However, before he died, he received $665,000 he had won."  In our sample, this first appears on the Bloomsbury letter [1959]. The name of the subject person and the amount received are highly variable.  CLEVO

Death20.  A type of luck chain letter characterized by: (1) a copy quota of twenty, (2) the presence of the Death and Money testimonial and (3) the absence of a Lottery24 block. Circulated from around 1959 to 1977. Death20 was combined with Lottery24 in the early 1970's to form the Death-Lottery (DL) and Lottery-Death (LD) types. CLEVO

Descendant.  Letter L is a descendant of letter M if M is an ancestor of L.

Descent group.  A clade.

Device.  A proposed reason why some component of a chain letter motivates distribution of the letter. May be expressed as a strategy, for example "warn against discard". The author of a device need not have anticipated or intended its effect on replication.  

Differential replication. The unequal rate of circulation of chain letter variations due to the affects on recipient behavior of varying content.

Discrete replicator.  Any replicative entity which can be completely described by a finite string of characters.

DL (Death-Lottery).  A chain letter type consisting of a Death20 block followed by a Lottery24 block. The blocks were combined around 1973 and, with the addition of the It Works postscript, went on to capture the luck chain letter niche in the US by 1980. CLEVO

Donor.  In a transfer, the letter from which the transferred text is taken.

Downline (of person X).  For multi-level marketing: all those participants whose sales result in a commission for X. These lie in the descent group of X (descent defined by recruitment). For money chain letters: all those letters with X's name and address on the senders list.

Elliot Wins and Loses. A traditional Win-Lose testimonial of the Death20, DL and LD mainline luck chain letters.  From the Death20 standard: "Don Elliott received $60,000.00 but lost it because he broke the chain." [1959CLEVO

Exchange chain letter. A category of chain letters that appeal to the recipient's desire to acquire certain items of small value. They (1) ask that such an item (for example, a recipe, postcard or handkerchief) be sent to one or more prior senders, and (2) suggest that if copies of the letter are distributed the sender will in turn receive many such items.  CLEVO

Expectation. A statement on a luck chain letter advising the reader to wait a certain number of days and "see what happens", implying that some benefit promised by the letter will manifest immediately after the waiting period expires. [1909] CLEVO

Exponential feedback process. A communications process by which some solicitation or opportunity for gain can conceivably increase exponentially as a result of others replicating the distributor's behavior. Examples include pyramid sales, money chain letters, pyramid schemes and multi-level marketing.

Exponential growth.  Change in a population that is proportional to the size of the population. If p(t) designates the population at time t, this condition is dp/dt = kp, k a constant called the growth constant. This implies that  p = po ekt where the constant po = p(0) is the population at time t = 0  and e = 2.71828... To approximate a population that goes through phases with different rates of growth or decline, piecewise exponential growth is assumed, with the growth constants varying for different intervals of time. 

Feature. Content on a chain letter that implies that another letter bearing this content is either an ancestor or descendant. Features are variations that can be used to diagnose lineage (barring a transfer). Variations that can arise independently, such as common misspellings, are not features. An absence may be considered a feature if it is very unlikely that it would come about by an accidental deletion. In cladistics, a character or character state.

Flanders. [For the geographical region see below.] A type of mainline luck chain letter which (1) associated its origin with Flanders, (2) had a copy quota of four or five, a deadline of 24 hours, and a wait of four days, (3) started with a Linkage declaration, (4) claimed it was going (or had gone) around the world three times, and (5) concluded with a recycle statement. Flanders letters usually had an Affirmation regarding its predictions of good and bad luck, and never had a list of names. The Flanders type developed around 1927, influenced by the Good Luck letters but decreasing the copy quota significantly. In the 1930's it was combined with a Prosperity letter forming the mainline Flanders-Prosperity type.

Flanders.  A region of N. Belgium, SW Netherlands and N. France corresponding to the medieval country of Flanders. Many chain letters from the 1920's and 30's allege that they were started by a soldier on a Flanders battlefield during World War I, but no such chain letter has ever been dated prior to 1922. Flanders is often given as the location of the remarkable "Christmas Truce" of 1914, in which British and German troops spontaneously left their trenches and fraternized. It was also said that an angel had been seen over the trenches in Flanders (Allport, The Psychology of Rumor, p. 165).

Flanders-Prosperity. A type of mainline luck chain letter formed by combining a Flanders type with a Prosperity letter on one page in that order. Modifications quickly appeared but most of the changes were to the Prosperity block. Retained in the Flanders block were a Linkage statement, Recycle (now internal), Circumnavigation and bad luck warnings, none of which were present in prior Prosperity letters. The testimonials persisted from the Prosperity block, as well as its Affirmation, often a displaced title, and its list. In 1939 "Do not send money" was added, and went on to become universal on luck chain letters.

Follow-up letter.  In direct mail campaigns, a letter designed to promote a previous solicitation. In "sweepstakes" promotions, the ultimate origin and intent of a follow-up letter may be dissembled. Follow-up luck chain letters may have once been designed and used to promote money chain letters. CLEVO

Food for Thought.  A chain publication listing eight tycoons who allegedly met in Chicago in 1923 but eventually suffered ill fates. Moral: they had learned to make money but not how to live. Also titled "Something to Think About". [1948] Later postscripted with a Gene Sarazen bio ["Play More Golf", 1966], and later that combination was followed by a luck chain letter [1972]. This led to the Media Chain Letter.  CLEVO

Founder.  Of a set of replicators, their most recent common ancestor; or often, the clone group that contains their most recent common ancestor. The oldest letter of a descent group of chain letters. Of a feature, the first letter that bore this feature.

Funneling event.  Analogous to the term in genetics: the reduction in variation in a population of chain letters occupying a niche due to (1) the recent capture of the niche by the descendants of a single letter, or (2) the cessation of all but one remaining version of a group of letters.  

Generation time (average).  Of a chain letter type, the average time elapsed from receipt to receipt along lineages. Estimating from deadlines and lists of dates. Since 1970 the generation time of mainline luck chain letters is about one week. CLEVO

Good Luck.  A type of mainline chain letter characterized by: (1) copy quota nine, deadline 24 hours and waiting period nine days, (2) brevity and secularity and (3) "send ... to people you wish good luck."  Many had a long list of senders, some with the form "X to Y." Earlier versions did not have  Linkage or Affirmation statements. Circulated from 1922 to 1928, often titled "Good Luck." Internally attributed to an "American officer", but there is no evidence it goes back to World War I.  Example: [1922]. CLEVO

Growth constant.  For the exponential growth  y(t) = y(0)ekt  the constant k. See exponential growth.

Growth factor.  For the exponential growth  y(t) = y(0)ekt the constant f = ek. Then y(t) = y(0)ft.  See exponential growth.
The growth factor f for the exponential growth V(t) that has circulation V(d) at time t = d is given by f = [V(d)/V(0)]1/d.

Himmelsbrief.  German for  "Letter from Heaven."  Usually restricted to apocryphal Christian letters that claim divine origin. CLEVO

Host. A person who reads at least some of a chain letter and may decide to convey copies of it (and/or the original letter) to another host.

Hyatt letter.  The standard example for the Prosperity type luck chain letter. Published by Harry M. Hyatt in Folklore from Adams County, Illinois. It had a leading controlled list of six names and towns. This sub-type was capable of obtaining donations for people on a list of senders. The sub-type circulated from 1933 until, presumably, the advent of Send-a-Dime in 1935.   CLEVO

Hybrid.  A chain letter produced by concatenating the nearly complete texts of two or more chain letters. This happened in the formation of the Flanders-Prosperity type,  Lottery-Death type, and the Death-Lottery type.  

Hyper-competitive. Of a descent group (or its founder, or its most effective feature): its capacity to replicate in such large numbers and so quickly that within a few years it replaces all other chain letters in the same motivational niche. Those letters replaced apparently cease all circulation.  CLEVO

Identification.  A recipient's determination (not necessarily correct) that a received letter is a luck chain letter; or that it is a particular type of luck chain letter, such as one associated with a certain nationality or religion. CLEVO

Immunization.  The effect whereby recipients distribute fewer copies of a chain letter if they have recently received one or more chain letters of the same motivational category.  CLEVO

Incidental content.  Content in a chain letter, such as variations in names, numbers, or choice of words, that are safely presumed to have no effect on propagation.

Innovation.  An intentional change to a chain letter. May be a modification, addition or deletion. Often one judged to have a significant positive effect on propagation. 

It Works postscript.  On the Death-Lottery (DL) type luck chain letter, the hyper-competitive postscript (or a variant): "Remember, do not send money.  Please do not ignore this.  It works!"  Developed in two phases around 1978 - 1979.  CLEVO

Jane Doe.  Pseudonym used for the anonymous author of the first Send-a-Dime chain letter.

Jesus' Sabbath Letter.  A common and very ancient Letter from Heaven. Alleges to have been written by Jesus and found at Iconium. Also called the Lady Cubas letter. Emphasizes Sabbath observance and demands publication of the letter. Possession is claimed to provide protection.  [1950]

Key feature.  Of a chain letter variation that has undergone increased circulation, that feature judged to be most responsible for this.

Kiss title. The title (or variants): "Kiss someone you love when you get this letter and make magic." First appeared around 1982 on a Death-Lottery type luck chain letter. CLEVO

Kiss-Love founder. The most recent common ancestor of the Kiss titled letters and the Love titled letters. The Kiss-Love founder was close to [1983-04], and was either titleless or bore a Kiss title. The Kiss-Love clade captured the mainline in a few years. CLEVO

KLC (Kiss-Love-Car).  An abundant variation in DL luck chain letters in which the Kiss title has been transferred to the top of a Love titled letter, Love being retained immediately below. Example: [1994].  CLEVO

Launch. The initial distribution of a new chain letter variation or type.

LD (Lottery-Death).  A mainline chain letter type consisting of the Lottery24 block followed by a Death20 block. Circulated abundantly from 1974-75. Example: [1974].  CLEVO

Letter from Heaven.  A . A letter claiming to have been written by some divine personage, either in the letter itself or in a preamble. At least one asked the reader to make copies (Ellis), but most request that the reader publish the letter. Circulated in Europe and elsewhere since at least the 6th century AD. Also called HimmelsbriefCLEVO

Linkage. A statement in a luck chain letter which describes one or two of the latest transmissions of the letter in hand. Example: "The good luck of Flanders was sent to me and I am sending it to you." If present, linkage statements appear at the start of a chain letter, and can function as a replacement for a list that has been removed. Some are present on Ancient Prayer, but they are common on chain letters of the 1920's and 30's. [1939]

Lose testimonial.  A form of luck chain letter testimonial claiming that a certain prior recipient failed to distribute the chain letter and subsequently suffered some misfortune. Example: Unbeliever's death. See also Win, Comply-Win, Lose-Win and Win-LoseCLEVO

Lose-Win testimonial.  A form of luck chain letter testimonial claiming that a certain prior recipient experienced bad luck after holding the letter past the deadline, but after belatedly distributing the full copy quota received good luck that more than made up for the prior misfortune.  Example: Lost job - better jobCLEVO

Lost job - better job. The Lose-Win testimonial (and its variants): "Carlos Brandt, an office employee, received the chain. He forgot it and lost it.  A few days after, he lost his job.  He found the chain, sent it out to 24 people, and nine days later, he got a better job."  First appeared in English in the early 1970's on the Lottery24 block of DL and LD luck chain letters. CLEVO

Lottery24.  A type of luck chain letter, likely of South American origin, characterized by: (1) a copy quota originally 24, (2) the presence of the Boss Wins Lottery testimonial and (3) the absence of a Death20 block. Presumed to have circulated in English in the early 1970's, previously in Spanish. Was combined with Death20 around 1973. No examples of Lottery24 in an uncombined form have been collected in the US. CLEVO

Love title.  The title (or variants): "With love all things are possible." First appeared around [1983] on Death-Lottery type luck chain letters. CLEVO

Luck by Mail.  A type of mainline luck chain letter characterized by: (1) copy quota five (this copy plus four), (2) "this is not a joke" and (3) the claim that luck will come "by mail." A highly variable type; some contain the Proverbs title. Circulated from around [1949] - [1967].  A version was used on the Media Chain LetterCLEVO

Luck chain letter.  A category of chain letters that appeal primarily to superstition to motivate replication. Also called "prayer" chain letters, but distinguished from the category of Letters from Heaven which appeal to religious piety. CLEVO

Luck of London. A mainline luck chain letter type with title usually "The Luck of London". Examples: [1944, 1945]. De Lys (1948) said it had started during the blitz (1940-41) and was still circulating in North America and Europe in 1948. CLEVO

Mainline.  For English language luck chain letters, the chronological sequence of types: Ancient Prayer, Good Luck, Flanders, Prosperity, Flanders-Prosperity, Luck by Mail, Death20, Lottery-Death, Death-Lottery. This is the predominant series, excluding the Blind13 and Chain of Good Luck types which were not heavily influenced by any prior domestic letter. Used to designate the stream of copying in luck chain letters since 1906.

Malabon.  A city just north of Manila in the Philippines. According to a chain letter [US, 1984], the origin of a luck chain letter that has "spread throughout the world."

Media Chain Letter.  A quota five luck chain letter, derived from the Luck by Mail type, which (1) instructs one to have a "secretary" make copies and (2) has attached cover letters from prior senders. Earliest version began in 1989 and was attached to the Play Golf office humor item.  Example: [1990-10].  CLEVO

Meme.  As defined by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (1976):  "a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation."  "Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.  Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation." Chain letters can be regarded as "meme complexes" and chain letter components as memes.

Money chain letter.  A motivational category of chain letters that appeal to the recipient's desire for money. They urge that money be sent to one or more prior senders, claiming that the recipient will in turn receive a large sum of money if copies are distributed. Example: [1935].  Origin

Multilevel marketing.  Various hierarchical systems of downline sales commissions, motivated by the hope for exponential feedbackRecruitment of sellers is more emphasized than sales. Developed in the late 1930's, influenced by pyramid sales schemes and money chain letters.

Network of transmissions. For a social replicator V, the network whose nodes and directed connections are specified as follows.

(1) Each person who received and/or transmitted V specifies one and only one node.
(2) For each transmission of V from person A to person B, node A is connected to node B.
(3) With each such connection there is associated the time of receipt of V.
Niche.  A subdivision within a motivational category of chain letters. For example, of exchange letters, postcards or recipes may be exchanged. Also a subdivision of the population of recipients (e.g. by gender, age, ethnic identity, language) that manifests in the circulation of varying chain letters with content specialized for this subdivision.

Novena.  A nine days' private or public devotion in the Catholic Church to obtain special graces. {Catholic Encyclopedia}

Occurrence table. A table which gives the number of chain letters in the archive of certain types (in the columns) which circulated in certain intervals of time (in the rows).  Example:  Table 4.

One-in-a-Hundred-Rule. The following rule of thumb that explains the success of a hyper-competitive variation of mainline luck chain letter as seen in the Paper Chain Letter Archive. It assumes an initial phase of exponential growth with weekly growth factor 1.2 (120 letters out for 100 received).

Consider a stable population of quota 20 mainline luck chain letters with a generation time of one week. If a variation arises that gets just one extra person in a hundred to fully comply, the circulation of this variation will double every month and within around two years it will be the only mainline luck chain letter still circulating.
Outlier.  A luck chain letter type that never dominated circulation within the luck niche in any year. A rare type of chain letter.

Parent. Chain letter P is a parent of letter C if almost all the text of C has been copied from P. For expository convenience, we also consider a received letter to be a parent of itself if this same physical letter is in turn distributed.

Parody (joke).  A motivational category of chain letters that mock the form or content of chain letters for humorous effect. Parodies often circulate like office humor, or by publication. Technically they are not chain letters since there is no serious demand for replication. Example:  [US, 1935]. CLEVO

Participant age.  Of a social activity, the average age of those who participate in it. For chain letters, the average age of the senders, averaged over each copy received.

Petition chain letter.  A petition that requests the recipient to effect its own reproduction, circulation and delivery to a person or institution. These are now categorized as advocacy chain letters.  [1927

Philippine testimonial.  Another name for the Death and Money win-lose testimonial, which always takes place in the Philippines.

Play Golf.  An office humor item that compares the ill fate of several 1920's tycoons to golfer Gene Sarazen. "Conclusion: Stop worrying about business and go play golf." [1966]  Internal dates suggest this was written as early as 1948. Later a chain letter was attached to the bottom. See Play Golf PlusCLEVO

Play Golf Plus.  The Play Golf  office humor item with a quota five chain letter added at the bottom. Circulated beginning around 1972. In the Media Chain Letter the Play Golf item is removed [1990].  CLEVO

Positive Feature.  A feature that is judged to be responsible, at least in part, for the increased circulation of the letters bearing it. Features may also be neutral or negative.

Post-linked features.  Within a group of chain letters, feature G is post-linked to feature H if every letter that bears G also bears H, but at least one letter bears H and not G (excluding a deletion of G). This implies that the first letter on which G appeared already bore H. Often H is a hyper-competitive feature, in which case G may become frequent as a rider on H, even if G itself has no positive effect on replication. In the terminology of cladistics, G is a "derived" character (apomorphy) in discussing the clade (taxon) founded by H.  CLEVO

Pre-linked features.  Within a group of chain letters, feature G is pre-linked to feature H if H is post-linked to G. Every letter that bears H will also bear G, but at least one letter bears G and not H. In the terminology of cladistics, G is ancestral (plesiomorphic) to H in discussing the clade founded by G.  CLEVO

Predominant Series.  The following series of eleven chain letter types: Ancient Prayer, Good Luck, Flanders, Prosperity, Flanders-Prosperity, Blind13, Chain of Good Luck, Luck by Mail, Death20, Lottery-Death, Death-Lottery. These are all the types which dominated luck chain circulation in the US for at least one year.

Preston, Michael J.  English professor and folklorist, author of "Chain Letters," Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin, v. 42, 1976. This documented the combining of two luck chain letters onto one page, and presented multiple unedited versions of chain letters.

Progressive letter scheme. A term used for some charity chain letters in 1889. Also "progressive system of subscription" [1888].

Propagation.  For a replicator whose growth function V(t) is approximately exponential in a time interval, it's propagation is the corresponding growth constant. If the population is stable, the propagation is 0. Generally "propagation" is not used in a numerical context, and just means the change in circulation of a replicator, especially in response to some variation present. 

Prosperity.  A mainline type of luck chain letter characterized by (1) copy quota five, deadline 24 hours and wait nine days; (2) a controlled list of senders; (3) an instruction to send copies to whom you wish prosperity; (4) two or three testimonials, about getting money and great loss; and (5) a corrupted affirmation. Usually a title mentioning God and his supplying needs was present. Origin was attributed to an "American colonel". Unlike the prior Flanders type, Linkage, Circumnavigation and Recycle statements were absent. Initially a quota nine version circulated which often lacked the controlled list, wish for prosperity, and affirmations. The Prosperity type letters circulated from around 1932 until the concatenation Flanders-Prosperity replaced them in 1939. Some standard Prosperity letter, such as the  Hyatt letter, was used as a model for Send-a-Dime, the first money chain letter.  CLEVO

Proverbs title.  For chain letters, the King James version of Proverbs 3:5-6 (and its corruptions): "Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths." Appeared on some mainline letters beginning in 1952, on all after 1968 until replaced in 1983. See Trust title.

Pyramid sales scheme.  "For the purposes of this Law, the term 'pyramid sales scheme' refers to a plan or organization designed for merchandise or service propagation or sales, the participants in which can obtain, for a certain consideration, the rights of promoting or selling merchandise or services, as well as the right to introduce new participants, thereby obtaining commissions, bonuses or other economic benefits. The 'certain consideration' referred to . . . shall be an amount of money, a purchase of merchandise, a contribution of  labor, or the incurrence of obligations" (Taiwan law). Pyramid sales schemes (now illegal in the US) go back at least to the 1890's, and boomed in the early 1930's. An early personal letter reveals the impact of pyramid sales [1900].

Pyramid scheme (n tier).  An illegal financial scheme in which: (1) participants are recruited person to person by friends, or at meetings, (2) a list of n names is displayed or distributed (often sold) to new participants, and (3) the payment of an "ante" to the top name on the list by new participants is notarized or supervised. This payment may, or may not, employ the mails. But to distinguish pyramid schemes from money chain letters, it is required that recruitment does not employ the mails. Developed from money chain letters in May 1935.  See Springfield.

Recycle. A statement in a chain letter which warns the reader to get rid of the received copy (often within a certain amount of time), or to distribute it along with the copies that are to be sent. Recycle statements were a characteristic of the Flanders type [1927] and usually appeared near the end of the text. A Recycle statement is universal on the abundant Death-Lottery letters. [2005]

Religion. A motivational category of chain letters that promote various religious institutions, causes or practices, but do not ask for money.

Remailer postcard.  A postcard with instructions for three or four successive recipients to remail it to a new address, and finally back to the originator. Originally hand printed, then commercially printed (often with a brief verse). Example: [1908]

Replicative.  Of an entity, capable of producing at least two more entities like itself under certain circumstances. Of a cultural item, spreading from person to person without exterior promotion or subsidy.

Replication.  A general term for copying. The person to person transmission of a chain letter, without regard to rapidity or numbers.

Replicator.  Generally, a replicative entity. A social replicator.

Restart.  To launch a money chain letter or pyramid scheme which is a copy of one received, except that the names in the list are replaced by new names, usually the names of the originator, co-conspirators or aliases.

Retention.  Of a received chain letter, keeping it in an undamaged state, accessible for copying. CLEVO

Rider.  A feature of an increasing chain letter variation that itself does not motivate significant circulation, the increasing circulation due instead to other features present on the letter.

Romance Game.  A outlier luck chain letter type spread as a classroom note, typically between young teenage girls. It purports to be a love charm that can get "the boy you like" to ask you out. Highly variable, the copy quota ranges from four to eight copies. Circulation in paper is documented from 1992 to 1998CLEVO

Sabbath type.  A uncollected early type of "luck" chain letter characterized by: (1) copy quota seven and deadline seven days, (2) protest of perceived Sabbath violations (theater, beer) and (3) a prayer. It promised no personal benefit to the sender. Circulated shortly after 1900.  Documented only by Donald Furthman Wickets.  

St. Antoine.  The French form of "St. Antony." Probably St. Antony of Padua (1195 - 1231), called the "wonder - worker," and patron of the poor. The name appears on early versions of the Lottery24 letter, and hence probably on its Latin American ancestors. There is a 1994 Brazilian example with "Santo Antonio." Also appears on some French and Polish  letters ("St. Antony") and an early version of the Blind13 U.S. type.

St. Jude (St. Jude Thaddeus).  An apostle, and saint of "hopeless causes," of "things almost despaired of."  "St. Jude" first appeared on English language chain letters around 1987. "St. Jude Thaddeus" has appeared on Mexican chain letters since at least 1984. For a history of devotional practices see (Orsi 1991) and (NYT  1993b).

Self-correcting text.  Text that, because of its redundancy or familiarity, is less subject to corruption during copying. CLEVO

Self-terminating.  A feature of early charity chain letters in which recipients were instructed to increase a number by one until it reached some maximum count, at which time the usual donation was solicited but no more copies were to be distributed. This was included in the definition of "Chain letter" in the Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition, 1989. CLEVO

Send-a-Dime.  A type of money chain letter characterized by: (1) a copy quota of five (rarely six) and deadline of three days, (2) a leading controlled list of six names and addresses and (3) the instruction to send a dime to the person removed from the list when it is processed. The first money chain letter, started around April 1, 1935. Usually titled Prosperity Club. Versions often kited the ante to more than a dime. Example: [1935]. See Jane DoeCLEVO

Senders list.  A list of alleged prior senders on a chain letter.

Social replicator.  Any replicative item passed from person to person. For example, a chain letter, joke, new word, attitude, graffiti, etc.  A meme or "meme complex."

Specifications (numerical specifications). The copy quota, deadline and waiting period of a luck chain letter. Also the number of names on a managed list, if present. For exchange or money chain letters, these plus the number of items or cash amount to send. For pyramid schemes, these plus the amount to sell each copy for, usually equal to the amount to send. Numbers on a chain letter that can be used to characterize it.

Springfield (Pyramid Scheme).  A type of illegal pyramid scheme in which: (1) B buys a letter (bearing a list of n names) for d dollars from seller A, (2) B sends d dollars to the person at the top of the list, (3) two copies of the letter are prepared with this top name removed, the others moved up one slot, and B's name placed at the bottom below A, (4) B tries to sell the two letters for d dollars each. If B accomplishes this he will then have recouped his initial investment of 2d dollars, and has the remote chance of receiving dx2n dollars from future buyers.

Most pyramid schemes since the 1950's have been the Springfield type (Bonds, Circle of Gold). Five dollar chain letters using this method first appeared on May 8, 1935 during the chain letter craze in Springfield, Missouri. Allen Oliver reported conversation moments after its inception (Springfield Leader and Press). See also the New York Times for May 9, 1935. Wickets calls these "guaranteed" letters (Liberty), but this term is used for a different process in the New York Times (May 12).

Standard example.  For a descent group of chain letters: a letter judged to best approximate the founder of the descent group. Usually the oldest example with no major deletions. Used to define what is and is not a "variation" within the descent group.

Symbiotic distribution. For two different social replicators: receipt of one favors the distribution of the other, and the targets of distribution tend to be the same people. CLEVO

Targeted distribution. Any preference or exclusion in the choice of whom to send a chain letter, as in response to a suggestion in the letter. CLEVO

Testimonial.  For luck chain letters, a story about good luck and/or bad luck experienced by a prior recipient. For money chain letters, a fictional account of money obtained by prior use of the letter. CLEVO

Text alternative. Two or more versions of corresponding text present on chain letters in a common descent group under discussion. The alternative versions need not be features, and can be varying word choices, deletions or added text. Used to determine the relatedness of chain letters.

Transfer.  In producing copy C using parent letter P, placement of text from a third letter D (the donor) onto copy C. The text may be directly copied or produced from memory. Usually the transferred text is a component of D. This process, or the text involved, is called a transfer. The text may be translated into the language of  letter C.  CLEVO

Transfer-linked features. Features G and H are transfer-linked within a group of letters if both appear separately (barring deletions) and they also appear together. This implies that either feature G was transferred to a letter bearing H, or feature H was transferred to a letter bearing G. In the terminology of cladistics, characters G and H are said to be conflicting, or homoplastic. CLEVO

Transitional letter. A chain letter which has some features of a forthcoming predominant type T, but not enough to be classified as an example of T. It may have an earlier circulation date than the prototypic example of T, or be a survivor of such. Presumably it is cognate to a stage in the development of type T.

Tree of variations.  Within a descent group of a varying chain letters, the diagram of how variations were derived from one another. Formally, for descent group G, the tree whose nodes and directed connections are specified as follows.

(1) Each clone group of G specifies one and only one node.
(2) If any member of the clone group V is a parent of a founder of clone group V' then node V is connected to node V'.
There are no cycles or converging branches in a tree of variations.   CLEVO

True cladogram.  For a sample of chain letters within a descent group (clade), the cladogram constructed by applying the most recent common ancestor relationships among pairs in the sample. Constructible using the tree of variations of the clade.  CLEVO

Trust title.  The corruption of Proverbs 3:5-6 that was pre-linked to the hyper-competetive It Works postscript of the Death-Lottery letter: "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and he will acknowledge and he will light the way." Also its subsequent variants. Present from around 1979 to 1983. See ProverbsCLEVO

Type.  A group of chain letters with easily recognized and persistent features that distinguish these letters from others in the same niche. The broadest classification of chain letters within a motivational category. A type may or may not be a descent group. The Good Luck type probably is not since it excludes the Flanders type which likely descended from a Good Luck variation. The concept of a "type" may not work so well for time periods in which there were numerous major variations.  CLEVO

Unbeliever's Death. The testimonial (and its variants): "Dolan Fairchild received the letter and not believing it, threw the letter away. Nine days later, he died ." It appears in the Lottery24 block of DL and LD luck chain letters. CLEVO

Universal feature.  A feature that is present on all chain letters within some niche, except for deletions. For example, "Do not send money" is universal among mainline luck chain letters since 1939.

Unlinked features. Features G and H are unlinked if, within a group of chain letters under discussion, G and H are present by themselves but there is no known letter which bears both G and H together. CLEVO

Variation. For a member of some descent group of chain letters, change in the text as compared to the founder (using the standard example) of the descent group. The letters bearing such a change. Any chain letter, different from the prevailing letters in circulation, that may experience initial exponential growth. 

Version. A particular variation of a component on a chain letter, or the letter bearing a particular variation. 

Waiting period.  The time, as specified on many luck chain letters, that a recipient must wait before receiving good luck.

Wickets, Donald Furthman.  Author of "Chain Letter Madness," Liberty, July 20, 1935. The only source for the Sabbath chain letter. The only source for alleged direct information on the author of  Send-a-Dime (the first money chain letter, see Jane Doe ). "Donald Furthman Wickets"  is a pen name for George Sylvester Viereck, German born American poet, author, and Nazi apologist.  

Win testimonial.  A Copy Later type of chain letter testimonial recounting the good fortune experienced by a recipient of the letter. There is no mention of the recipient complying with the copy demands of the letter. See Comply-Win. CLEVO

Win-Lose testimonial.  A Copy Later type of chain letter testimonial claiming that a prior recipient had good luck, but after failing to distribute the letter suffered an unlucky loss that equaled or exceeded the prior gain. Example: Death and Money. CLEVO

"World Record" chain letter. A motivational category of chain letters that falsely claims participation may result in recognition by Guinness of a world record for chain letters. Developed from a post card exchange letter, specialized to circulate among children, around the year 2000.  CLEVO

Daniel W. VanArsdale:   email      Index Page

Contents of the Paper Chain Letter Archive          Chain Letter Evolution