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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There is a nice explanation on ask.yahoo.
Edit: Also there's this wiktionary entry
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.
In his book, Salt: A World History, Mark Kurlansky says of New Englanders,
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,
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,
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.
Philoto didn't mention the following quote from Wiktionary.com, which is important:
This is backed by a study by Michael Quinon, which can be read here
Later on, journalist William Cobbett
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.
There is an old rhyme:
I always thought that this might be the origin of the phrase when used to mean a diversion or misdirection, but I suppose you would have to know which came first, the rhyme or the usage.
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.
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.
To be clear at the outset, a red herring is not a species of herring nor a genetic oddity, like an albino sperm whale, but simply a herring that has been smoked. Many early references to “red herring” in matches found by a Google Books search focus on the commercial trade in red herring, or dwell on the differences between fresh (or white) herring, salted herring, pickled herring, and red herring. Others treat a red herring as a kind of embodiment of a very modest meal.
Previous answerers have noted the OED’s recent attribution of “red herring” in the sense of “false trail” to William Cobbett in a story published on February 14, 1807. But the Cobbett instance is at least 25 years later than two occurrences in Google Books search results where “red herring” has that same figurative sense. The first confirmed relevant match that a Google Books search finds is from a speech by “Mr. Courtenay” on March 20, 1782, reproduced in the section on “Simile” in The Beauties of the British Senate: Taken from the Debates of the Lords and Commons (1786):
Also relevant is this item from The Sportsman’s Dictionary; Or, The Gentleman’s Companion for Town and Country, Second Edition (1782):
The first edition of this book was published in 1778, but I haven’t been able to find a previewable version of it.
A match that is potentially even earlier, but is limited to a snippet view and therefore not fully confirmed, appears in The Universal Museum and Complete Magazine, volume 2 (1763, date not confirmed) [snippet]:
Another possible connection between “red herring” and false reasoning involves this first half of an anecdote from “The Spiritual Quixote,” in The Critical Review or Annals of Literature (1773):
Yet another possibility arises in the context of a memorable practical joke. From Gerard Langbaine, “Jasper Main,” in An Account of the English Dramatick Poets (1691):
The same story about Dr. Jasper Mayne, with the same punch line, appears almost a century later in William Owen & William Johnston, A New Biographical Dictionary, Containing an Historical and Critical Account of the Lives and Writings of the Most Eminent Persons in Every Nation, Particularly the British and Irish, From the Earliest Accounts of Time to the present Period (1784):
Similar accounts appear in John Noorthouck, An Historical and Classical Dictionary (1776) and in David Baker and Isaac Reed, Biographica Dramatica, Or, A Companion to the Playhouse (1782). Apparently, among the class of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Englishmen who had servants, this tale of posthumously raising and then dashing a longtime servant’s hopes was simply too droll a joke to forget. In this case, a red herring is a disappointing reward in place of something that one has imagined and expected to be extremely valuable.
In all three cases (red herring as train scent, red herring as consubstantiated bacon, and red herring as false prize at the end of long service), the fish can be seen as a metaphor for deception. Of the three, the train-scent red herring seems the likeliest to be the source of today’s term, but the practical-joke red herring seems to have been around the longest, and it is not impossible that all three sources may have influenced today's general notion of a figurative red herring as something fundamentally misleading.
protected by tchrist Jan 8 '15 at 3:17
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