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Friday, July 18, 2014

Where Does the Term "Red Herring" Come From?

“Where does the term ‘red herring’ come from?”

A red herring is commonly defined as a piece of information that misleads or distracts from the real situation. You can often find them in mystery stories, added in by the author to keep the reader from unraveling the plot too quickly. uses The Da Vinci Code and “The Hound of the Baskervilles” as examples – both contain characters who function as red herrings by behaving so suspiciously that the reader believes them to be the culprit, until the end of the story when they’re revealed to be innocent all along. Red herrings also appear in arguments when a person brings up an unrelated topic in the hopes of turning their audience’s focus away from the actual issue at hand.

According to NTC’S American Idioms Dictionary, the term comes from the practice of using a strong-smelling smoked fish (the aforementioned red herring) to throw hunting dogs off the scent they were following, particularly to keep them from chasing a fox.  However, Michael Quinion’s article on World Wide Words disputes that commonly-held belief. In all his research of fox hunting, the only time he came across anyone using a literal red herring was the mention of hunters dragging one across the ground for dogs to follow so that the horses used in the hunt could grow accustomed to following along with the dogs. Obviously, that doesn’t have much to do with confusing a trail.

Quinion writes that the proper etymology of the phrase has since been traced back to 19th century journalist William Cobbett. Cobbett claimed that, as a boy, he used a red herring to divert dogs from their quarry. Most likely he had made this story up, but he compared the dogs being distracted from their hunt by the false scent to other journalists being distracted from domestic matters by false news of Napoleon, and the idiom “red herring” was born.

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