View synonyms for red herring

red herring

[ red her-ing ]


  1. a smoked herring.
  2. something intended to divert attention from the real problem or matter at hand; a misleading clue.
  3. Also called red-her·ring pro·spec·tus [red, -, her, -ing pr, uh, -spek-t, uh, s]. Finance. a tentative prospectus circulated by the underwriters of a new issue of stocks or bonds that is pending approval by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission: so called because the front cover of such a prospectus must carry a special notice printed in red.
  4. any similar tentative financial prospectus, as one concerning a pending or proposed sale of cooperative or condominium apartments.

red herring


  1. anything that diverts attention from a topic or line of inquiry
  2. a herring cured by salting and smoking

red herring

  1. In argument, something designed to divert an opponent's attention from the central issue. If a herring is dragged across a trail that hounds are following, it throws them off the scent.

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Word History and Origins

Origin of red herring1

First recorded in 1375–1425; late Middle English

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Idioms and Phrases

Something that draws attention away from the central issue, as in Talking about the new plant is a red herring to keep us from learning about downsizing plans . The herring in this expression is red and strong-smelling from being preserved by smoking. The idiom alludes to dragging a smoked herring across a trail to cover up the scent and throw off tracking dogs. [Late 1800s]

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Example Sentences

Blaming a busted deal on "market conditions" is a well-worn red herring.

From Axios

Then again, a member of Congress throwing out red herrings to justify hate and discrimination is nothing new.

From Time

Ekback excels at presenting red herrings, and the plot zigzags in intriguing ways.

There were certainly many red herrings during the hunt for why sea stars along North America’s Pacific Coast were melting into goo, says Ian Hewson, a marine biologist at Cornell University.

Without spoiling, the revelation is much more boring, leaving this “twist” to be more of a red herring.

Koenig makes a big deal out of this call and frames it as a massive red herring.

Nevertheless, Brian Rogers, a McCain aide pushed back against UANI, calling the Rio Tinto-Iran connection “a red herring.”

The brutality of Dothraki culture is actually a red herring.

The fact that some BDS activists are for one state solution is irrelevant here and no more than a red herring.

He opposes settlements but calls them “a giant red herring.”

But we have to discuss the red-herring, not of the artful politician, anxious to dodge his hearers, but of the breakfast-table.

The red herring of annexation was drawn across the trail, and many a farmer followed it to the polling booth.

I know not what object her pale blue orbs encountered; but mine fell on the half-picked head of a red herring!

If I can tell which is the way to my master's house, I am a red herring, and no honest gentleman.

As Grandfather Bryant used to say, they are neither fish nor flesh, nor good red herring.


Related Words

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More About Red Herring

Where does red herring come from?

A herring is a type of silvery fish. So how did a red herring become an expression for something that throws a detective off their track?

Herring swim in vast schools and are an important source of food in many cultures. When dried and smoked, they turn a reddish color, hence the name red herring. This literal sense of the term is old, dating back to the late 1300s.

Now, it’s often said that the figurative red herring—referring to a distraction from a matter at hand or a misleading clue—comes from historic uses of the fish to make hounds lose their scent while hunting.

As one account goes, hunters would drag red herring along the ground to train hounds to follow a scent. Then, the hunters would introduce the hounds to the scent of another animal, such as a badger. The hounds were supposed to follow the scent of the badger and not be distracted by the red herring, apparently as a way of teaching the dogs to stay focused on their trail—or as a way for escaped criminals to throw off hounds chasing them down.

There is definitely record that red herring were used in hunting. In 1599, English writer Thomas Nashe wrote about how the skin of a red herring was used to train hounds to follow a scent. And a 1697 work on horsemanship noted how a red herring could be used to train horses to follow hounds amid the chaos of a hunt.

But these early instances talk about how red herring was used to coach—not confuse—animals. What gives? English journalist William Cobbett.

Cobbett was a vocal critic of England’s government and press. In a February 14, 1807, edition of his weekly publication, Political Register, Cobbett told an apparently made-up story about how, when he was boy, they used to drag red herrings on strings to distract dogs sent on hares in their property. He then used this story as an analogy to how he felt the English press was, at that time, spreading false news about the defeat of Napoleon as “a political red herring,” designed to distract people from more important matters at home.

Did you know ... ?

In logic and rhetoric, a red herring is sometimes used to name a type of fallacy where a person brings up an irrelevant point in an argument. Pretend you’re arguing with your roommate about how they never do their dishes. Then, they point out that you always stay up really late watching TV. That point is a red herring because it isn’t relevant to the discussion about cleaning up after oneself.

In mystery and crime novels, movies, and shows, a red herring specifically refers to a misleading clue, distracting the reader (or a character in the story) from who’s really guilty. Everything from Sherlock Holmes stories to Gone Girl have featured delicious red herrings. (Don’t worry, no spoilers here.)

A special sense of red herring is used in finance. A red-herring prospectus is a set of preliminary information that a company submits to the SEC (Security and Exchange Commission), such as before an IPO (initial public offering).

Given what red herring means, you might think that a red-herring prospectus is designed to mislead the SEC—and investors. But that’s not the case. The name actually comes from the bright-red disclaimer on the prospectus that states that the information in the prospectus may change and is incomplete.

Definitions and idiom definitions from Unabridged, based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2023

Idioms from The American Heritage® Idioms Dictionary copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.




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