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 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)[4]
  2. (figuratively) A clue, information, argument etc. that is or is intended to be misleading, diverting attention from the real answer or issue.


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. ^ 2008, Michael Quinion, "The Lure of the Red Herring", World Wide Words.
  3. ^ The Phrase Finder. [1]
  4. ^ Samuel Pepys (1893), “The Diary of Samuel Pepys M.A. F.R.S.”, in Samuel Pepys' Diary[2], retrieved February 21, 2006