Red Herring

cat among pigeons

red herring is a literary tactic of diverting attention away from an item of significance. For example, in mystery fiction, where the identity of a criminal is being sought, an innocent party may be purposefully cast in a guilty light by the author through the employment of false emphasis, deceptive clues, ‘loaded’ words, or other descriptive tricks of the trade. The reader’s suspicions are thus misdirected, allowing the true culprit to go (temporarily at least) undetected. A false protagonist is another example of a red herring.

In a literal sense, there is no such fish species as a ‘red herring’; rather it refers to a particularly ‘strong kipper’ (a fish that has been strongly cured and smoked making it pungent smelling and reddish in color).

The idiomatic sense of ‘red herring’ has, until very recently, been thought to originate from a supposed technique of training young scent hounds. According to one version, the a red herring would be dragged along a trail until a puppy learned to follow the scent. Later, when the dog was being trained to follow the faint odor of a fox or a badger, the trainer would drag a red herring (whose strong scent confuses the animal) perpendicular to the animal’s trail to confuse the dog. The dog would eventually learn to follow the original scent rather than the stronger scent. An alternate etymology points to escaping convicts who would use the pungent fish to throw off hounds in pursuit.

 In reality, the technique was probably never used to train hounds or help desperate criminals. The idiom likely originates from an article published in 1807 by journalist William Cobbett in the polemical ‘Weekly Political Register.’ In a critique of the English press, which had mistakenly reported Napoleon’s defeat, Cobbett recounted that he had once used a red herring to deflect hounds in pursuit of a hare, adding ‘It was a mere transitory effect of the political red-herring; for, on the Saturday, the scent became as cold as a stone.’

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