meaning and origin of ‘red herring’

 

the Red Herring - Coppull, Lancashire

The Red Herring is a public house at Coppull, in Lancashire.

 

 

MEANING

 

red herring: a clue or piece of information which is, or is intended to be, misleading or distracting

 

ORIGIN

 

The literal meaning of red herring is a dried smoked herring, which is turned red by the smoke. Red herring was formerly used among other things in laying trails for hounds to follow in order to train horses which followed the hounds. This was explained by Nicholas Cox (floruit 1673-1731) in the chapter titled of the Horse’s Third Fortnight’s Keeping, and first thorough Sweating of the book The Gentleman’s Recreation, in Four Parts. Viz. Hunting, Fowling, Hawking, Fishing (6th edition – 1721):

If your Sport has been so indifferent, as not to sweat your Horse thoroughly, then you shall make a Train-scent of four Miles long, or thereabout, and laying on your fleetest Dogs, ride it briskly, and then having first cooled him in the Field, ride him home and use him as aforesaid.
Now, that I may not leave you in Ignorance what a Train-scent is, I shall acquaint you that it has its Name, as I suppose, from the Manner of it, viz. the trailing or dragging of a dead Cat or Fox (and in Case of Necessity a Red-herring) three or four Miles, (according to the Will of the Rider, or the Directions given him) and then laying the Dogs on the Scent.

As early as 1599, the Elizabethan pamphleteer Thomas Nashe (1567-1601?) had written “to draw on hounds to a scent, to a red herring’s skin there is nothing comparable” in Lenten stuff concerning the description and first procreation and increase of the town of Great Yarmouth, in Norfolk: with a new play never played before, of the praise of the red herring.

In A West Somerset Word-Book (1886), Frederic Thomas Elworthy thus defined the noun drag:

1. In fox-hunting, the line of scent where a fox has been during the previous night, before he is found and started by the pack. […]
2. Any strong-smelling thing drawn along the ground so as to leave a scent for hounds to followA red-herring or a ferret’s bed are the commonest drags used.

Such a trail was artificial and therefore false as opposed to the trail of real game in a hunt. In the 19th century, this artificial trail was misunderstood as a deliberate attempt to distract the hounds. However, there is no evidence for such a practice, except in the text in which this interpretation probably originated: Continental War, an article by the pamphleteer and journalist William Cobbett (1763-1835) published in Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register of 14th February 1807. The author described “the progress of the belligerent lie, with which the senseless metropolis was amused and agitated during the eight days that ended on the 1st of this month”. As a preamble, he wrote:

When I was a boy, we used, in order to draw off 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, across fields and through coppices, till we got to a point, whence we were pretty sure the hunters would not return to the spot where they had thrown off.

Cobbett then explained what “this long-lived and hard-dying lie” was:

It was on Saturday, the 24th of January, that the Morning Chronicle, the leader of the pack, came, all at once, athwart the drag. Scarcely had his well-known voice reached the ears of his wide-ranging brethren, when they, knowing him to be, of late, held in high esteem by the huntsman at Whitehall, joined in the jovial cry, while, from Downing-street to St. James’s and from St James’s to the ’Change, there burst forth one universal hark-forward, and every fool you met shook you by the hand, and laughingly told you, that the French had been defeated by the Russians with the loss of 40,000 men, all their baggage and artillery, with ten generals made prisoners, and Buonaparté mortally wounded. […] On Tuesday, however, the scent evidently began to grow cold. […] But, on Thursday, after a tedious fault, and when only now-and-then a disregarded yelp was to be heard, the whole pack, as if their mouths had been opened by one and the same wire, set up a full and most melodious cry, upon the arrival of sundry letters from various ports in the Baltic, Holland, France, and elsewhere, all perfectly concurring in the important facts, that the French had been defeated, with the loss of 50,000 men, 80 pieces of artillery, and that they were retreating through the Prussian states with the utmost precipitation. […] Alas! it was a mere transitory effect of the political red-herring; for, on the Saturday, the scent became as cold as a stone; and, on the Monday, the Morning Chronicle solemnly assured its readers, that the little bulletin, which it had published itself under the name of Lord Howick, never had been promulgated by, or received the sanction of, his Majesty’s Ministers!

The image of the red herring seems to have been a favourite of Cobbett’s. He used it on several occasions, for example in a letter to John Stuart Wortley dated 28th August 1833:

Hounds (hare-hounds at least) will follow the trail of a red-herring as eagerly as that of a hare, and rather more so, the scent being stronger and more unbroken. […] You have been put upon a wrong scent; you have been hunting a red-herring instead of a hare.

Another story might also have played its role in the figurative usage of red herring. It was originally told by the dramatic biographer Gerard Langbaine (1656-92) in An Account of the English Dramatick Poets (1691). About the English clergyman, poet and translator Jasper Mayne (1604-72), he wrote:

He Died on the Sixth day of December, An. 1672. and was Buried in Christ-Church on the North-side of the Quire: having in his Will left several Bequests to Pious uses. As Fifty Pounds to the Re-building of St Pauls; A Hundred Pounds to be distributed by the Two Vicars of Cassington and Purton, for the use of the Poor of these Parishes, with many other Legacies: amongst which I cannot forget One, which has frequently occasion’d Mirth at the relation. He had a Servant who had long liv’d with him, to whom he bequeath’d a Trunk, and in it Somewhat (as he said) that would make him Drink after his Death. The Doctor being dead the Trunk, was speedily visited by his Servant with mighty Expectation, where he found this promising Legacy to be nothing but a Red-Herring: So that it might be said of him, that his propensity to innocent Raillery was so great, that it kept him Company even after Death.

This story reappeared on several occasions during the 18th century, and may have contributed to the figurative sense of red herring as something deliberately misleading.

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