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The Lure of the Red Herring

About 12 years ago, in the early days of World Wide Words, I wrote a puzzled piece about the origin of red herring, something that distracts attention from the real issues. A study of the entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, coupled with a little knowledge of fox hunting and some reading around the topic, made me wonder if the usual story about its origin was correct.

All the dictionaries and reference books I consulted argued that the metaphor grew up because a red herring was dragged along the ground to confuse a scent. In the 1997 edition of Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, Robert Hendrickson firmly asserts that “Escaping criminals in the 17th century would drag strong-smelling red herring across a trail to make pursuing blood-hounds lose the scent”. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, and many dictionaries, say that red herrings were used to confuse the hounds chasing a fox. What is left unsaid is any clue to who was supposed to be laying this false trail, or why. Was an early group of hunt saboteurs at work? In the half dozen books on aspects of the history of fox hunting that I searched out, there was no reference to the use of a red herring to lay a false scent.

At the time I had to leave the topic without providing any answer. The matter is now cleared up as the result of a pair of articles in the October 2008 edition of Comments on Etymology, edited by Professor Gerald Cohen at the Missouri University of Science and Technology. One article reprints notes Prof Cohen made on the term in the same journal in 2000, the other is by Robert Scott Ross, who suggests a plausible origin for the expression. Their findings are supported by the Oxford English Dictionary’s revised entry for red herring, which is to appear online shortly.

Let’s take a step back first, as I had to in the original article, to explain a literal red herring. Before modern refrigeration and speedy transport, fish could not be got to customers more than a few miles inland before it went bad. Various methods were invented for preserving them, using salting, smoking or pickling. Kippers are herrings that have been split, salted, dried and smoked. Yarmouth bloaters are made by a variation on kippering but are whole fish and do not keep so well. Arbroath smokies are smoked haddock. Red herrings are a type of kipper that have been much more heavily smoked, for up to 10 days, until they have been part-cooked and have gone a reddish-brown colour. They also have a strong smell. They would keep for months (they were transported in barrels to provide protein on long sea voyages) but in this state they were inedible and had to be soaked to soften them and remove the salt before they could be heated and served.

The first reference to them in English is from around 1420, although the technique is older than that. Within a century, they had been immortalised in the expression neither fish, nor flesh, nor good red herring (later, fowl was added or replaced flesh), meaning something that was nondescript or neither one thing nor another. The original form of this now rather opaque saying was: neither fresh fish for the clergy, nor meat for the mass of people, nor red herrings for the poor. Not only the poor: prosperous households at times ate them on Fridays and other meatless days and during Lent.

The OED’s current entry for the figurative sense of red herring points to a reference in Nicholas Cox’s The Gentleman’s Recreation of around 1697 (Mr Ross says it was actually in a treatise by Gerland Langbaine on horsemanship that was bound into the third edition of this work without attribution) that appeared to suggest that hounds were trained to follow a scent by trailing a red herring on the ground. This was a misunderstanding, as Langbaine included it in a section on training horses so that they became accustomed to following the hounds amid the noise and bustle of a fox hunt. He suggested a dead cat or fox should be dragged as a training-scent for the hounds, so that the horses could follow them. If you had no acceptably ripe dead animals handy, he added, you could as a last resort use a red herring. Neither the original misunderstanding of the text or the correction suggests why red herrings might be thought of as laying a false scent to draw hounds off a trail, quite the reverse.

Robert Scott Ross and the OED now trace the figurative sense to the radical journalist William Cobbett, whose Weekly Political Register thundered in the years 1803-35 against the English political system he denigrated as the Old Corruption. He wrote a story, presumably fictional, in the issue of 14 February 1807 about how as a boy he had used a red herring as a decoy to deflect hounds chasing after a hare. He used the story as a metaphor to decry the press, which had allowed itself to be misled by false information about a supposed defeat of Napoleon; this caused them to take their attention off important domestic matters: “It was a mere transitory effect of the political red-herring; for, on the Saturday, the scent became as cold as a stone.”

This story, and his extended repetition of it in 1833, was enough to get the figurative sense of red herring into the minds of his readers, unfortunately also with the false idea that it came from some real practice of huntsmen. It was reinforced by the belief of Cobbett’s son that the origin was correct; he included it in a commentary on an edition of his father’s Rural Rides in 1853.

This does nothing to change the sense of red herring, of course: it’s been for too long a fixed part of our vocabulary for it to change. But at least we now know its origin. Another obscure etymology has been nailed down.

Page created 25 Oct. 2008

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Last modified: 25 October 2008.