red herring

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One possible origin of the idiom was that red herring were used to train dogs to track scents. This was true[1], but the modern meaning of a false trail may have been popularised in 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.[2] The OED has another possible earlier origin in the legacy of clergyman Jasper Mayne in 1672 when he misled a servant by leaving him "Somewhat that would make him Drink after his Death" in a large trunk. When the trunk was opened, the contents were found to be red herring.[3]


red herring (plural red herrings)

  1. A herring that is cured in smoke and brine strong enough to turn the flesh red; a type of kipper.
  2. (figuratively) A clue, information, argument etc. that is or is intended to be misleading, diverting attention from the real answer or issue.
    • 2019 June 8, Kitty Empire, “Madonna: Madame X review – a splendidly bizarre return to form”, in The Guardian[1], London:
      Colombia is a red herring, however. The songs that became Madame X actually came together during Madonna’s two years in Portugal, where she decamped in 2017 when her son David enrolled in Benfica’s football academy. Madonna absorbed the local sounds with more of a mature, simpatico rather than asset-stripping eye.
  3. (finance) A red herring prospectus.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Next, to draw on hounds to a sent, to a redde herring skinne there is nothing comparable.", Thomas Nashe: Lenten Stuffe (1599)
  2. ^ Michael Quinion, “Red herring”, in World Wide Words, 1996–2021.
  3. ^ Gary Martin, “Red herring”, in The Phrase Finder, 1997–.

Further reading[edit]