"red herring"

Posted by James Briggs on September 07, 2003

In Reply to: "Red herring" posted by Mary Ellen Reilly on September 07, 2003

: During a discussion, one side describes the other side's argument as a "red herring". What does this mean? Even using the context of the discussion, and accounting for the intelligence and integrity of the speakers, I am unable to conclude what the phrase means.

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.