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 or red herring) (plural always "red herrings" for all senses except the literal fish, which may take either)

  1. A herring that is cured in smoke and brine strong enough to turn the flesh red; a type of kipper.
    • 1660 March 9 (date written; Gregorian calendar), Samuel Pepys, Mynors Bright, transcriber, “February 28th, 1659–1660”, in Henry B[enjamin] Wheatley, editor, The Diary of Samuel Pepys [], volume I, London: George Bell & Sons []; Cambridge: Deighton Bell & Co., published 1893, →OCLC, page 74:
      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.
    • 1871, George Eliot [pseudonym; Mary Ann Evans], chapter 11, in Middlemarch [], volume I, Edinburgh, London: William Blackwood and Sons, →OCLC, book I, page 170:
      ‘Mamma,’ said Rosamond, ‘when Fred comes down I wish you would not let him have red herrings. I cannot bear the smell of them all over the house at this hour of the morning.’
  2. (figuratively) A clue, information, argument etc. that is or is intended to be misleading, diverting attention from the real answer or issue.
    Synonym: decoy
    • 1997, David Foster Wallace, “David Lynch keeps his head”, in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, Kindle edition, Little, Brown Book Group:
      By its thirtieth episode, the show [Twin Peaks] had degenerated into tics and shticks and mannerisms and red herrings, and part of the explanation for this was that [David] Lynch was trying to divert our attention from the fact that he really had no idea how to wrap the central murder case up.
    • 2012 March 1, Elizabeth Peters, Children of the Storm (Amelia Peabody)‎[1], Hachette UK, →ISBN, →OCLC:
      I will, of course, turn my analytical talents to bear on the identity of the imitation Hathor, but in my opinion she is only a red herring – a nuisance, a distraction.
    • 2019 June 8, Kitty Empire, “Madonna: Madame X review – a splendidly bizarre return to form”, in The Guardian[2], 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.
  3. (finance) A red herring prospectus.
  4. (slang, archaic) A soldier (from the traditional red uniform).
    • 1846 October 1 – 1848 April 1, Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son, London: Bradbury and Evans, [], published 1848, →OCLC, page 208:
      “Devil a bit, Ma’am,” said the Major. “We couldn’t afford it. Unless the world was peopled with J.B.’s—tough and blunt old Joes, Ma’am, plain red herrings with hard roes, Sir—we couldn’t afford it. It wouldn’t do.”

Related terms[edit]


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 (1996–2023), “Red herring”, in World Wide Words.
  3. ^ Gary Martin (1997–), “Red herring”, in The Phrase Finder.

Further reading[edit]