Curious George

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Thursday, June 23, 2005

The smelly and misunderstood Red Herring

Red herring is a deliberate attempt to change or divert an argument.
Why is the herring red?
And how can you use it to cover up an uncomfortable discussion? Learn all this and more in today´s entry.

Lets talk about the fish first: 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 red herrings in English is from around 1420, although the technique is older than that. Within a century, they had been immortalized 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 best sources I have found online trace the figurative sense to the journalist William Cobbett. 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.”

Several online references claim that the herring is completely useless to throw hounds off their track, but the people who use the expression dont seem to care too much about this.... (nor do they probably know about its 1807 origins)

Source: Comments on Etymology, edited by Professor Gerald Cohen at the Missouri University of Science and Technology


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