Coin that Phrase: Red Herring

by Annie Shao, age 18

The idiom red herring refers to the act of diverting attention from an item of focus or importance. In a literal sense, a red herring is smoked kipper fish, cured so strongly that its color is a reddish-brown. Strangely enough, the literary term is a red herring itself.

Until recently, it was widely believed that the origins of this term had to do with hunters and their hounds. But, more recently, experts have pinned the first use of the figurative meaning of red herring to radical journalist William Cobbett.

In Cobbett’s 1807 essay criticizing the British political system, he wrote a fictional anecdote about a boy throwing a red herring, whose pungent scent diverted hounds from pursuing a rabbit. He compared this to the British press, which falsely announced the death of Napoleon, causing reporters to disregard important current events of the time. Interestingly enough, this led people to wrongly believe that red herrings were literally used in distracting hunting dogs.

People use red herrings all the time, whether they know it or not. Did you ever try to bring up the essay you got an A on in English class when your parents were scolding you about your less-than-perfect math grade? If you did, you were using the same literary tactic that William Cobbett used two hundred years ago.


interesting idiom, haven't seen it before – Dan , NY (2021-01-21 01:54)
interesting idiom, haven't seen it before – Dan , NY (2021-01-21 01:54)
google [url=]google[/url] – Emily , FR (2021-01-21 02:04)