Origin of red herring
Words nearby red herring
BEHIND THE WORD
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.
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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
Blaming a busted deal on "market conditions" is a well-worn red herring.
Then again, a member of Congress throwing out red herrings to justify hate and discrimination is nothing new.Why the Equality Act Matters For Our Family—And For Many Others Across America|Marie Newman and Evie Newman|March 3, 2021|Time
Ekback excels at presenting red herrings, and the plot zigzags in intriguing ways.Two historical mystery novels plunge readers into the past while keeping them guessing|Clare McHugh|February 8, 2021|Washington Post
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.Some bacteria are suffocating sea stars, turning the animals to goo|Erin Garcia de Jesus|January 20, 2021|Science News
Without spoiling, the revelation is much more boring, leaving this “twist” to be more of a red herring.‘Twin Mirror’ is a pale reflection of Dontnod’s previous, story-rich games|Elise Favis|December 2, 2020|Washington Post
Former Red Sox star Curt Schilling says his politics are keeping him out of Cooperstown.Conservative Curt Says His Politics, Not His Pitching, Kept Him Out of the Hall of Fame|Ben Jacobs|January 9, 2015|DAILY BEAST
Nor does the jet have the ability to capture high-definition video, utilize an infra-red pointer.
There was deep brown flesh, and bronze flesh, and pallid white flesh, and flesh turned red from the hot sun.Powerful Congressman Writes About ‘Fleshy Breasts’|Asawin Suebsaeng|January 7, 2015|DAILY BEAST
A Republican candidate hoping to win red state support could find a worse team to root for than one from Dallas.
The pale, baby-faced, red-cheeked rapper is furiously puffing away at a hastily-made blunt crammed with low-grade weed.The Cult of Yung Lean: ‘I’m Building An Anarchistic Society From the Ground Up’|Marlow Stern|January 4, 2015|DAILY BEAST
Beginners must be warned against mistaking the edges of cells, or particles which have retained the red stain, for bacilli.A Manual of Clinical Diagnosis|James Campbell Todd
Under the internal pressure his whiskers stood on end and his face grew red.The Bondboy|George W. (George Washington) Ogden
“You appear to feel it so,” rejoined Mr. Pickwick, smiling at the clerk, who was literally red-hot.The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, v. 2(of 2)|Charles Dickens
Ripperda's eye fell upon the mantle,—it was discoloured a dark red in many places, he nodded his head, and the man withdrew.The Pastor's Fire-side Vol. 3 of 4|Jane Porter
C was a Captain, all covered with lace; D was a drunkard, and had a red face.
British Dictionary definitions for red herring
Cultural definitions for 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.
Other Idioms and Phrases with 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]