1. A smoked herring having a reddish color.
2. Something that draws attention away from the matter being discussed or dealt with.
[Sense 2, probably from the use of smoked herrings to lay scent trails for hounds to follow.]
Word History: A red herring was originally a herring cured by smoking, a process that imparts a reddish color to its flesh. It is not known how red herring came to denote something that diverts the attention of observers or investigators, but the modern meaning may have arisen in connection with the sport of hunting. A clue to its origin is found in A Gentleman's Recreation, a guide to hounds, hawks, horses, and other hunting matters first published in 1674 by the Englishman Nicholas Cox. This enormously popular book went through many editions, and in it Cox describes a practice that may have given rise to the modern expression red herring. If the day's hunt has been uneventful and the huntsman's horse has been unable to work up a good sweat, Cox recommends having a dead cat or fox, or lacking these, a red herring, dragged over the countryside for about four miles, and then setting the hounds on the scent trail thus created. As a substitute for an animal carcass, a red herring would have been readily available in any English kitchen, and its pungent, fishy-smelling flesh would have left a scent that the hounds could track easily. By riding after the hounds as they followed the scent, the huntsman could ensure that his horse has received sufficient exercise. The modern meaning of the expression red herring was perhaps inspired by practices similar to this and developed from the notion of deliberately laying an artificial trail that could distract one's pursuers. However, the first known use of the term red herring in its modern sense, "something that distracts attention from an important issue," occurs in the 1800s, well after the publication of Cox's book.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition copyright ©2020 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
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