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The Real Story Behind the Term ‘Red Herring’

misocrazy, Wiki Commons

If you’ve ever read a detective or spy novel, you‘re probably familiar with the term ‘red herring.’ A red herring is a clue or some piece of evidence that intentionally leads the investigator, or the reader, further away from the truth.

So, how exactly did this term come into existence?

A deceptive fish

Red herrings don’t actually swim around in the ocean. You’ll never come across a school of these crimson fish. Why, you may wonder, is that? Well, red herrings get their name from the color they turn after being salted and smoked. These swimmers are already trying to fool you, it seems, even before they’ve entered the literary scene.

Hounds and smelly fish

One possible explanation for the use of this term comes from the dated practice of using red herrings to train foxhounds. The fish would be dragged along the trail to teach the young pups how to follow a scent.

As a particular hound got better at following the smelly fish, the herrings would be used to confuse the dog, and throw it off the scent of the animal it was really supposed to be tracking. Eventually the hound would sort it all out, and become a better overall tracker.

Those wretched servants deserve what they get

There is some disagreement about the various theories behind the origins of this phrase. People who care about language do agree that the term as been around for a long time.

One of the most striking, and slightly cruel, accounts concerns Jasper Mayne, a rich English clergyman who died in 1672. He’d bequeathed a large trunk to one of his servants, to be opened upon his death.

The jokes on you

Jasper led the servant to believe that the trunk had something in it that would let him drink to his heart’s content. Perhaps it was full of money to spend at the local tavern? Alas, the servant had no such luck. The truck was filled to the brim with salted red herrings. You’ve got to love those clergymen. They real know how to make a servant feel bad.

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