Email subjects. What are they? What do they communicate? What are the conventions? Who decided these things? How have they changed over time? Where are they headed? Are they obsolete?

I wrote an email today that was somewhat formal, in that it was more formal than:

subject: none

body: Whattup! How’s the slow cooker? Still burning roasts?

More along the lines of:

subject: Thanks

body: Person,

Wanted to say thanks again for taking the time to speak with me today,…

But I hesitated on the subject line before sending: should it be capitalized? lowercase? more than just “thanks”?

According to the Internet Message Format, aka email spec, apparently the subject field in an email is actually just a header. And optional at that! Not that this changes much, but we see it’s just a string in a hash of headers.

From the Online Etymological Dictionary, we get the following entry:

subject (n.)

early 14c., “person under control or dominion of another,” specifically a government or ruler, from Old French sogit, suget, subget “a subject person or thing” (12c., Modern French sujet), from noun use of Latin subiectus “lying under, below, near bordering on,” figuratively “subjected, subdued,” past participle of subicere, subiicere “to place under, throw under, bind under; to make subject, subordinate,” from sub “under” (from PIE root *upo “under”) + combining form of iacere “to throw” (from PIE root *ye- “to throw, impel”). In 14c., sugges, sogetis, subgit, sugette; form re-Latinized in English 16c.

Meaning “person or thing regarded as recipient of action, one that may be acted upon” is recorded from 1590s. Grammatical sense is recorded from 1630s, from Latin subjectum “grammatical subject,” noun use of the neuter of the Latin past participle. Likewise some restricted uses in logic and philosophy are borrowed directly from Latin subjectum as “foundation or subject of a proposition,” a loan-translation of Aristotle’s to hypokeimenon. Meaning “subject matter of an art or science” is attested from 1540s, probably short for subject matter (late 14c.), which is from Medieval Latin subjecta materia, a loan translation of Greek hypokeimene hylē (Aristotle), literally “that which lies beneath.”

Particularly interested in the translation of the Greek hypokeimene, “that which lies beneath.” Can we then think of email subjects as that essence that lies beneath our meandering email or, perhaps, what the heart yearns to say in our emails that don’t say enough.