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I understand that "red herring" means something like a clue or indicator that is misleading. But where does this come from? What does a misleading clue have to do with smoked fish?

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True. Sorry about that. This was my first foray into English.stackexchange.com. I'll try to more diligent about that in the future. –  Mark Meuer Jun 20 '11 at 19:05
@Bogdan Lataianu: You may be a bit 'previous' there. I'm going to raise the matter of 'red herring' in metaphorical use. There may well be something worth investigating here... books.google.com/… –  FumbleFingers Jun 23 '11 at 4:44
Just as a followup in case anyone looks here to find out the origin of this word or others, there's a great etymology dictionary online these days: etymonline.com/index.php?l=r&p=14&allowed_in_frame=0 –  Sheryl Jan 31 at 21:51
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6 Answers 6

up vote 4 down vote accepted

There is a nice explanation on ask.yahoo.

British fugitives in the 1800s would rub a herring across their trail, thereby diverting the bloodhounds that were hot in pursuit. In the 1920s, American investment bankers started calling preliminary prospectuses "red herrings" as a warning to investors that the documents were not complete or final and could be misleading.

Edit: Also there's this wiktionary entry

It originated from a news story by English journalist William Cobbett, c. 1805, in which he claimed that as a boy he used a red herring (a cured and salted herring) to mislead hounds following a trail; the story served as an extended metaphor for the London press, which had earned Cobbett's ire by publishing false news accounts regarding Napoleon.

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Yes, but it's important to quote also from wiktionary: "Until 2008, the accepted etymology of the idiom was that red herring were used to train dogs to track scents. This has proven to be a false etymology " with a link to worldwidewords.org/articles/herring.htm . I don't think ask.yahoo is a good source, for example only 1 out of the 4 links in that article work. –  Theta30 Jun 17 '11 at 17:32
Well, we're not very interested in wrong etymologies, even if they were considered as right ones for almost two centuries, right? –  Philoto Jun 17 '11 at 18:09
are you being ironic? Anyway, I think it all is very interesting. But it's also very good to label false etymology as such. –  Prof. Falken Jun 23 '11 at 6:18
So, @Theta30, are you implying that ask.yahoo's entry is a red herring? –  Mark Meuer Dec 7 '12 at 21:33
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OP's question puts me in mind of Neither fish nor flesh, nor good red herring, which doesn't normally have anything to do with comestibles at all. It mostly just means not easily defined, and it's most commonly applied to people or opinions, not things which you might eat, or lay false trails with.

So far as I can tell, red herring has been a standard term since the year dot, when it originally meant exactly that (a smoked fish, red by virtue of the smoking treatment).

In the 1750's it began to be used figuratively to mean a meagre amount of humble food. Only much later was it used to mean a decoy.

The oft-repeated explanation of red herrings being used to deflect hounds sounds a little fanciful to me. Who would both happen to have a red herring around at the time, and wish to deflect the hounds? It sounds to me like an old-time American politician's attempt to sound 'folksy' by coming out with a neologism that would sound traditional, but be comprehensible on first hearing. On a par with out on a limb.

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I agree with the sentiment: "The oft-repeated explanation of red herrings being used to deflect hounds sounds a little fanciful to me". If a convict did have access to some stinky fish, and managed to escape with some on their person, the smell of fish juice would be all over their hands and likely clothes; I'd just train my search hounds to FOLLOW the scent of the herring, which would still lead me to the convict on the run. (In other words, that etymology smells downright fishy to me...) –  Dan H Mar 18 at 20:19
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In his book, Salt: A World History, Mark Kurlansky says of New Englanders,

They also ate a great deal of salted herring, though they seem to have preferred lightly salted and smoked red herring, perhaps because of their limited salt supply. When these early settlers hunted, they would leave red herring along their trail because the strong smell would confuse wolves, [italics mine] which is the origin of the expression red herring, meaning "a false trail."

Let's look at three things mentioned above, namely: salt, fish and wolves. The early settlers were resolutely concerned with fishing and the production of salt. In Bradford's History of Plymouth Plantation we have an early letter to the Settlers at New Plymouth from Robert Cushman of England, who says,

We have now sent you, we hope, men and a means to accomplish three things, viz., fishing, salt-making, and boat-making: if you can master them your wants will be supplied. I pray you exert yourselves to do so.

These things were requested by Governor William Bradford of the Plymouth Colony. In Mourt's Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, we have an account of just how prevalent the wolves were near Plymouth, and their apparent fearlessness,

...John Goodman went abroad to use his lame feet, that were pitifully ill with the cold he had got, having a little spaniel with him. A little way from the plantation two great wolves ran after the dog; the dog ran to him and betwixt his legs for succor. He had nothing in his hand but took up a stick, and threw at one of them and hit him, and they presently ran both away, but came again; he got a pale-board [fence-stave] in his hand, and they sat both on their tails, grinning at him a good while, and went their way and left him.

Unfortunately, Kurlansky does not cite a reference to his etymology of the phrase. Nor do John Smith's Description of New England, Rev. Francis Higginson's New England's Plantation, William Bradford's History of the Plymouth Settlement, nor Mourt's Relation, all of which Kurlansky refers to, mention herring (or any other fish) in relation to wolves. That said, Kurlansky's etymology, in context, is simply a passing curiosity. And I find it at least plausible with the dearth of another suitable explanation.

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Philoto didn't mention the following quote from Wiktionary.com, which is important:

Until 2008, the accepted etymology of the idiom was that red herring were used to train dogs to track scents. This has proven to be a false etymology.

This is backed by a study by Michael Quinon, which can be read here

The OED’s current entry for the figurative sense of red herring points to a reference in Nicholas Cox’s The Gentleman’s Recreation of around 1697 (Mr Ross says it was actually in a treatise by Gerland Langbaine on horsemanship...) that appeared to suggest that hounds were trained to follow a scent by trailing a red herring on the ground. This was a misunderstanding, as Langbaine included it in a section on training horses so that they became accustomed to following the hounds amid the noise and bustle of a fox hunt.

Later on, journalist William Cobbett

wrote a story, presumably fictional, in the issue of 14 February 1807 about how as a boy he had used a red herring as a decoy to deflect hounds chasing after a hare. He used the story as a metaphor to decry the press, which had allowed itself to be misled by false information about a supposed defeat of Napoleon;

Also, this was busted in an episode of MythBusters on Discovery channel. When the red herring was used as a scent, the hound stopped and ate the fish, but eventually went back on pursuit and located the fugitive.

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Just half watched a segment on how it's made over morning coffee about this.

I think it was in Finland that they use carved balsa wood models of herrings, painted red, to attract herring to their nets, like a duck decoy (I assume it was to the net, It was my FIRST coffee). Painting them red might well have been inspired by the smoked herring, but it would seem to me that red herring's ties top something false or contrived in the sense of a near decoy would more reasonably go back to that use.

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Try to find something that supports and substantiates your hypothesis, so as to make this qualify as an answer. –  Kris Jan 17 at 8:27
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Hunting lore. Centuries back when English lords (and ladies?) were tracking game (like hares and other animals) they were pursuing for the hunt. Rival “teams” would drag a red herring across the road to throw off the bloodhounds’ scent to gain advantage for their team.

The phrase has now come to be known as a way of distracting the opposition from a true course of action, etc.

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