red herring

[ red-her-ing ]
/ ˈrɛd ˈhɛr ɪŋ /
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a smoked herring.
something intended to divert attention from the real problem or matter at hand; a misleading clue.
Also called red-her·ring pro·spec·tus [red-her-ing pruh-spek-tuhs] /ˈrɛdˈhɛr ɪŋ prəˌspɛk təs/ .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.
any similar tentative financial prospectus, as one concerning a pending or proposed sale of cooperative or condominium apartments.
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Origin of red herring

late Middle English word dating back to 1375–1425
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2023


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.

How to use red herring in a sentence

British Dictionary definitions for red herring

red herring

anything that diverts attention from a topic or line of inquiry
a herring cured by salting and smoking
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Cultural definitions for red herring

red herring

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.

The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Other Idioms and Phrases with red herring

red herring

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]

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