red herring

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Until 2008, the accepted etymology of the idiom was that red herring were used to train dogs to track scents. This has proved to be a false etymology.[1]

It originated from a news story by English journalist William Cobbett, c. 1805, in which he claimed that as a boy he used a red herring (a cured and salted herring) to mislead hounds following a trail; the story served as an extended metaphor for the London press, which had earned Cobbett's ire by publishing false news accounts regarding Napoleon.[1]


red herring (plural red herrings)

  1. A smoke-cured and salt-brined herring strong enough to turn the flesh red; a type of kipper.
    "Up in the morning, and had some red herrings to our breakfast, while my boot-heel was a-mending, by the same token the boy left the hole as big as it was before." (Samuel Pepys diary entry of 28 February 1660)[2]
  2. (figuratively) A clue or information that is or is intended to be misleading, that diverts attention from a question.


See also[edit]


  1. 1.0 1.1 2008, Michael Quinion, "The Lure of the Red Herring", World Wide Words.
  2. ^ Samuel Pepys (1893), "The Diary of Samuel Pepys M.A. F.R.S.", Samuel Pepys' Diary. URL accessed on February 21 2006.