Posted by James Briggs on December 29, 2001
In Reply to: red herring posted by R. Berg on December 29, 2001
: : I've heard the phrase "red herring" several times recently. Any ideas of meaning or origin?
: From the Oxford English Dictionary:
: "To draw a red herring across the track" (cf. quot. 1686 . . . ): to attempt to divert attention from the real question; hence "red-herring," a subject intended to have this effect.
: [The "quot. 1686":] "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 the Dogs on the scent" (Nicholas Cox, "The Gentleman's Recreation," 1686).
: (Red herrings are literally herrings that turn red when cured by smoking.)
A red herring is an alternative, somewhat old fashioned, name for a smoked herring. Such fish have a very strong smell and were usually known, not as kippers, but as red herrings in many parts of 19th century Britain. Because of their smell they were good at masking other smells; as a result they could easily cover the scent of a fox. A red herring pulled across the trail could divert the hounds onto a false path. Thus, by analogy, the phrase came to be used to describe any false trail