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Why a ‘red herring’ is a false clue

Q: I see that you’ve used the phrase “red herring” several times on your blog, but I don’t believe you’ve explained how it came to mean something that’s deceptive or distracting, especially a false clue in a mystery. Did I miss it?

A: No, you didn’t miss it, but now is as good a time as any to remedy its absence.

When “red herring” showed up in English in the Middle Ages, it referred literally to “dried smoked herring, turned a reddish-brown colour in the curing process,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED’s earliest citation is from Le Traité de Walter de Bibbesworth sur la Langue Française. Oxford dates the manuscript at sometime before 1333, though the author lived from 1235 to 1270.

In the traité, or treatise, which uses verse to teach French to children, the Anglo-Norman haranc sor is translated as “heryng red” in Middle English.

It wasn’t until the early 1800s, the dictionary says, that “red herring” took on the figurative sense of a “clue or piece of information which is or is intended to be misleading, or is a distraction from the real question.”

The dictionary’s first example is from the Feb. 14, 1807, issue of Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register, edited by the pamphleteer and politician William Cobbett: “Alas! it was a mere transitory effect of the political red-herring; for, оn the Saturday, the scent became as cold as a stone.”

The OED traces this sense to “the former practice of laying trails for hounds to follow, ultimately to exercise horses which followed the hounds; red herring could be used for this purpose,” adding that “such a trail was artificial and therefore false as opposed to the trail of real game in a hunt.”

The dictionary notes that this literal use of the pungent red herring in fox hunting is mentioned in Lenten Stuffe, a 1599 book by Thomas Nashe: “Next, to draw on hounds to a sent, to a redde herring skinne there is nothing comparable.”

Oxford also cites The Gentleman’s Recreation, a 1697 book in which Nicholas Cox describes endurance training for horses by the “trailing or dragging of a dead Cat, or Fox, (and in case of necessity a Red-Herring) three or four Miles … and then laying the Dogs on the scent.”

In the 19th century, according to the OED, “the artificial trail was wrongly perceived to have been a deliberate attempt to distract the hounds,” though “there is no evidence for such a practice, and it is likely that this interpretation originated in a politically motivated fictional tale by W. Cobbett.”

In the 1807 article cited earlier, Cobbett says that as a child he used to “draw oft’ the harriers from the trail of a hare” by dragging “a red-herring, tied to a string, four or five miles over hedges and ditches, across fields and through coppices.”

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