Falling for a Red Herring

A ‘red herring’ is an idiom, and a plot device that acts as a plausible, yet diversionary tactic (e.g. false clues to lead to false conclusion) and is often featured in crime and suspense genres, as well as the occasional excuse for why you haven’t met that deadline at work.

Politicians often rely on red herrings too as part of a rhetorical stratagem; generally during interviews where they are forced to defend weak policy or to explain misappropriation of public funding.

One of the best literary uses of the red herring is Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose where he cleverly leads the reader down a warren of false starts and dead ends.

No one quite knows the etymology of ‘red herring’ however, there are some clues which may or may not lead us to the correct conclusion.

Some argue that kippers (a pungent fish that turns red when salted and smoked) was used to train hounds to follow a scent or to divert them off trail.

Recent linguistic research suggests that the term may have been invented in 1807 by English journalist William Cobbett, referring to one occasion, while hunting with Samuel Stokes, on which he had supposedly used a kipper to divert hounds from chasing a rabbit.

Here is where the plot thickens. According to etymologist Michael Quinion, the idiom originated from an article published in 1807 by Cobbett in his polemical Political Register. In a critique of the English press, which had mistakenly reported Napoleon’s defeat, Quinion argues that Cobbett’s use of a red herring ‘to deflect hounds in pursuit of a hare’ was merely figurative – not actual. According to Quinion, Cobbett’s extended repetition of the idiom up to 1833, was enough to get the figurative sense of red herring into the minds of his readers, along with the false idea that it came from actual hunting practice.

It seems the origin of red herring is just as intriguing as its purpose as a plot device. A red herring in the literary sense may also be the only time readers thoroughly enjoy being lead up the garden path to a brick wall.

Till next time, crack some queer whids!

Wordsmith Jo

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