- a smoked herring
- something used to divert attention from the basic issue: from the practice of drawing a herring across the trace in hunting, to distract the hounds
- Finance, Informal a preliminary prospectus, subject to amendment, for an issue of securities: from the notice printed on the front in red ink
When a murderer plants a knife in someone else's home to try to throw the police off track, the knife is an example of a red herring.
- A smoked herring having a reddish color.
- Something that draws attention away from the matter being discussed or dealt with.
Origin of red herringSense 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.
(plural red herrings)
- A smoke-cured and salt-brined herring strong enough to turn the flesh red; a type of kipper.
- "Up in the morning, and had some red herrings to our breakfast, while my boot-heel was a-mending, by the same token the boy left the hole as big as it was before." (Samuel Pepys diary entry of 28 February 1660)
- (figuratively) A clue or information that is or is intended to be misleading, that diverts attention from a question.
Until 2008, the accepted etymology of the idiom was that red herring were used to train dogs to track scents. This has proven to be a false etymology.
It originated from a news story by English journalist William Cobbett, c. 1805, in which he claimed that as a boy he used a red herring (a cured and salted herring) to mislead hounds following a trail; the story served as an extended metaphor for the London press, which had earned Cobbett's ire by publishing false news accounts regarding Napoleon.
red herring - Investment & Finance Definition
A preliminary prospectus issued by a company that is planning a public securities offering. The term comes from the bright red letters that are printed on the cover and the fact that the prospectus has not been approved by the SEC. See also prospectus.