Thursday, 4 May 2017

Red Herring

Words and phrases – Red Herring
A red herring is one which has been cured by salting and slow smoking to a reddish brown colour.

Metaphorically it is a clue or piece of information which is misleading or detracts attention from the real issue.  Agatha Christie's books are full of red herrings.

The phrase is said to have come about because of the use of a red herring (an especially smelly fish) being drawn across a trail (such as that of a fox) to confuse the hunting hounds. William Cobbett is said to have used a real red herring to confuse a pack of hounds chasing a hare and then on 14 February 1807 he used the incident to criticise the English Press who had mistakenly reported the defeat of Napoleon calling it a ‘political red herring’. And so the term ‘Red Herring’ became entrenched in the language as a diverting trail.   

Cobbett (9 March 1763 – 18 June 1835) 
was an English pamphleteer, farmer, 
journalist and Member of Parliament.  

Interestingly, the red herring may originally have been used for a slightly different purpose as outlined in Nicholas Cox’s “The Gentleman's Recreation : in four parts, viz. hunting, hawking, fowling, fishing” in 1686:-

‘A Dog may be trained by the trailing or dragging of a dead Cat, or Fox, (and in case of necessity, a Red-herring) three or four miles… and then laying him on the scent.’


  1. I've often wondered where the phrase came from.

  2. I knew what a red herring is, but didn't know where the expression comes from. Thank you!

  3. Word history is so much fun!

  4. ... which leaves me wondering what the REAL point of this post was. 8-)

    1. Does a post have to have a REAL point? Or even any sort of point? Nearly all of mine reek of red herrings.

    2. So is that the REAL point of most of your posts? Just asking...


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