What is the Origin of the Expression "Red Herring" to Mean a Diversion or False Trail?

Posted on 22 Feb 2014 17:37

When we call something a 'red herring' we mean that it is a diversionary tactic meant to set us off in an irrelevant direction - a false trail, if you will. In logic, argumentation, and rhetoric, a red herring is considered either a fallacy or a tactic and it refers to any argument that dwells on irrelevant information so as to divert our attention from the true issues we are debating. It is sometimes called a red herring argument.1 What in the world does a fish have to do with diversion and logic?

Red Herring Origin

There are several stories about how the red herring idiom got its start. All of them start with smoked herring. Herrings are abundant in the North Atlantic ocean, but they are not red. The flesh of the fish is turned red by the smoking process. As food, they are sometimes called kippers or just herring, but they are not called red herring, a fact that we will explore below.

One story about the origin tells us that it originated in the English tradition of fox hunting. A 1686 publication, The Gentleman's Recreation by Nicholas Cox, claimed that for training hunting dogs, it was useful to drag a dead cat or fox along a trail to mark the scent. If a dead cat or fox wasn't available, a red herring could be used. Smoked herring have a strong smell so the fish flesh could be used to create trails for the dogs to follow, helping them learn to follow a scent. This may well have been practiced, but since the hounds were meant to follow these trails, as a training devise, I'm not sure it is plausible to assume that this gave rise to the idiom's meaning of "false trail."

However, it is also sometimes claimed that fox hunters would use smoked herring to to deliberately deceive the dogs so that the hunt could be prolonged.

Another origin story, however, says that 19th century bandits, being pursued by bloodhounds, would rub a herring across their trail to divert the dogs. This sounds a bit more plausible, but it almost certainly would not have worked! Bloodhounds are very difficult to divert from the true scent for more than a few seconds. This story sometimes adds trappers in Oregon and Alaska to the mix, saying they would lay pieces of red herring on low hanging branches to deceive…I don't know who or what they were trying to deceive or what trappers had to do with bandits.

Smoked herring fish

Smoked Herrings. See the red color?

Smoked herring fish

Smoked Herrings. See the red color?

Yet another version has it that early New England settlers would leave little bits of red herring along their trail to confuse any wolves who might be stalking them. I'm not sure why you would lay a trail of fish along your own trail in order to "confuse wolves." It seems like to me that would be the equivalent of a red carpet and would have given rise to a completely different expression!

Often, etymologies focus on the idea that the herring is red, so that the original expression had something to do with a herring being red. Remember that when we refer to smoked herring as food, we do not call it red herring. Although we do not know the exact meaning of the original expression, somehow the terms red and herring came to be used as a unit, to denote a diversionary tactic. Therefore we say "that's a red herring" instead of "that herring is red." This, to me, is no explanation at all. It tries to derive the meaning of the expression from its component words, a practice which is, in etymological studies, often a red herring! In this case, we are trying to imagine that the expression arose because of some significance in the herring having a red color. However, you can see why it is tempting. After all, why the emphasis on the red color? Even if the true origin is found in laying false trails for hounds or wolves, it is hard to understand why the term red herring was used when it is not used to refer to the smoked herring as food.

In fact, many writings of the late 19th and early 20th century contain the expression "a red herring drawn across the trail," which meant that someone was trying to divert attention away from the true issue. This lends credence to the smoked herring and trail stories. Whichever story is true (perhaps all of them, since the practice could have well been handed down), the association of the red herring idiom with laying a false trail seems to be a literal one. Nowadays, any type of false clue might be called a red herring, but the idiom is most often used in discussions of logic and argumentation, if not politics.

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