Red herring is an English-language idiom, a logical fallacy that misleads or detracts from the issue. It is also a literary device that leads readers or characters towards a false conclusion, often used in mystery or detective fiction.
The origin of the expression has a number of theories. Conventional wisdom has long attributed it to a technique of training hounds to follow a scent, or of distracting hounds during a fox hunt, but modern linguistic research suggests that it was most likely a literary device invented in 1807 by English polemicist William Cobbett, and never an actual practice of hunters. The phrase was later borrowed to provide a formal name for the logical fallacy, and is also a formal name for a literary device or technique.
As an informal fallacy, the red herring falls into a broad class of relevance fallacies. Unlike the strawman, which is premised on a distortion of the other party's position, the red herring is a seemingly plausible, though ultimately irrelevant diversionary tactic. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a red herring may be intentional, or unintentional, it does not necessarily mean a conscious intent to mislead.
The expression is mainly used to assert that an argument is not relevant to the issue being discussed. For example, "I think that we should make the academic requirements stricter for students. I recommend that you support this because we are in a budget crisis and we do not want our salaries affected." The second sentence, though used to support the first sentence, does not address that topic.
In literature, a red herring is a false clue that leads readers or characters towards a false conclusion. For example, the character of Bishop Aringarosa in Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code is presented for most of the novel as if he is at the centre of the church's conspiracies, but is later revealed to have been innocently duped by the true antagonist of the story. The character's name is a loose Italian translation of "red herring".
History of the idiom
In a literal sense, there is no such fish as a "red herring"; it refers to a particularly strong kipper, a fish (typically a herring) that has been strongly cured in brine and/or heavily smoked. This process makes the fish particularly pungent smelling and, with strong enough brine, turns its flesh reddish. In its literal sense as a strongly cured kipper, the term can be dated to the mid-13th century CE, in the poem The Treatise by Walter of Bibbesworth: "He eteþ no ffyssh But heryng red."
Until very recently, the figurative sense of "red herring" was thought to originate from a supposed technique of training young scent hounds. There are variations of the story, but according to one version, the pungent 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 odour 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 eventually learned to follow the original scent rather than the stronger scent. An alternate etymology points to escaping convicts who used the pungent fish to throw off hounds in pursuit.
According to etymologist Michael Quinion, the idiom likely originates from an article published 14 February 1807 by radical journalist William Cobbett in his polemical 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." Quinion concludes: "This story, and [Cobbett's] 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."
Although Cobbett most famously mentioned it, he was not the first to consider red herring for scenting hounds; an earlier reference occurs in the pamphlet "Nashe's Lenten Stuffe," published in 1599 by the Elizabethan writer Thomas Nashe, in which he says "Next, to draw on hounds to a scent, to a red herring skin there is nothing comparable." The Oxford English Dictionary makes no connection with Nashe's quote and the figurative meaning of red herring, only in the sense of a hunting practice.
The use of herring to throw off pursuing scent hounds was tested on Episode 148 of the series MythBusters. Although the hound used in the test stopped to eat the fish and lost the fugitive's scent for a while, he eventually backtracked and located his target, resulting in the myth being classified as "Busted".
|Look up red herring in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
- Oxford English Dictionary. red herring, n. Third edition, September 2009; online version December 2011. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/160314; accessed 18 December 2011. An entry for this word was first included in New English Dictionary, 1904.
- Patrick J. Hurley (2011). A Concise Introduction to Logic. Cengage Learning. pp. 131–133. ISBN 978-0-8400-3417-5.
- Christopher W. Tindale (2007). Fallacies and Argument Appraisal. Cambridge University Press. pp. 28–33. ISBN 978-0-521-84208-2.
- Nozar Niazi (2010). "How To Study Literature: Stylistic And Pragmatic Approaches". PHI Learning Pvt. Ltd. p. 142. Retrieved 2013-03-02.
- Bernard Marie Dupriez (1991). "Dictionary of Literary Devices: Gradus, A-Z". Translated by Albert W. Halsall. University of Toronto Press. p. 322. Retrieved 2013-03-02.
- Lewis Turco (1999). "The Book of Literary Terms: The Genres of Fiction, Drama, Nonfiction, Literary Criticism and Scholarship". UPNE. p. 143. Retrieved 2013-03-02.
- Michael Lieb, Emma Mason, Jonathan Roberts (2011). The Oxford Handbook of the Reception History of the Bible. Oxford University Press. p. 370. ISBN 9780199670390.
- Quinion, Michael (2002–2008). "The Lure of the Red Herring". World Wide Words. Retrieved November 10, 2010.
- Bibbesworth, Walter de (c. 1250) Femina Trinity College, Cambridge MS B.14.40. 27. Anglo-Norman On-Line Hub, 2005. ISBN 9780955212406.
- Thomas Nashe, Nashes Lenten Stuffe (1599): "Next, to draw on hounds to a sent, to a redde herring skinne there is nothing comparable." (Since Nashe makes this statement not in a serious reference to hunting but as an aside in a humorous pamphlet, the professed aim of which is to extol the wonderful virtues of red herrings, it need not be evidence of actual practice. In the same paragraph he makes other unlikely claims, such as that the fish dried and powdered is a prophylactic for kidney or gallstones.)
- Currall, J.E.P; M.S. Moss; S.A.J. Stuart (2008). "Authenticity: a red herring?". Journal of Applied Logic 6 (4): 534–544. doi:10.1016/j.jal.2008.09.004. ISSN 1570-8683.
- Hendrickson, R. (2000). The facts on file encyclopedia of word and phrase origins. United States: Checkmark.
- "...we used, in order to draw oft' the harriers from the trail of a hare that we had set down as our own private property, get to her haunt early in the morning, and drag a red-herring, tied to a string, four or five miles over hedges and ditches..." For the full original story by Cobbett, see "Continental War" on pg. 231-33 of Political Register, February 14, 1807. In Cobbett's political register, Volume XI, 1807 at Internet Archive
- Nashe, Thomas (1599) Praise of the Red Herring In: William Oldys and John Malham (Eds) The Harleian miscellany Volume 2, Printed for R. Dutton, 1809. Page 331.
- MythBusters: Season 9, Episode 1 - Hair of the Dog at the Internet Movie Database
- Episode 148: Hair of the Dog, Mythbustersresults.com