The red herring: you surely understand what it means (a misleading or distracting clue), but do you truly know what it is? I sure didn't, until I dove below sea level to uncover the etymological origins of this finicky, fallacious fish. Fleeing fugitives, Latin logic, and fiscal formality -- they're all part of this crimson creature's checkered past.
Oh, and by the way: the red herring doesn't actually exist in nature. More of the baffling backstory, right this way...
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There are many types of herring (Atlantic! Chilean! Pacific! Lake...?!), but the red herring is no child of Mother Earth. It's just an old moniker for the reddened halves -- aka "kippers" -- of regular ol' herring that were heavily salted & smoked for preservation in those heady early days of serving surf with turf.
On top of that, some herring species' skins coincidentally do have a pinkish-red hue, compounding the confusion of etymologically-challenged fishmongers.
It's way older than the United States
Euphemistically, this not-fish is ancient. In his improbably fascinating essay at World Wide Words, Michael Quinion puts its first English-language appearance around 1420 -- 72 years before Columbus sailed the (presumably herring-filled) ocean blue!
Red herring is the oft-omitted third wheel of the 15th-century phrase "neither fish, nor fowl", and, by the close of the 17th century, it'd gain real traction thanks to The Gentleman's Recreation, a treatise that schooled English lords on how to maximize their lordliness. In 1697, that included fishing, hunting, and, of course, fox-chasing.
The hounds! They love the herring! (Right?)
Literary historians initially misunderstood its mention in Gentleman's Rec to mean it was used to train hunting dogs to follow scents -- totally understandable given the pungency of the actual fish. This, itself, was a misdirection; it later turned out that kippers were sometimes used to smell-train the horses to follow the dogs, who were usually smell-trained with dead cats or dogs. Super!
Another red herring in the search for the definition of red herring: colonial fugitives supposedly dropped kippers to throw dogs off their trails when fleeing from capture. This may have been true, but it probably didn't work -- Mythbusters found that bloodhounds would eat the fish, then resume tracking.
But back to those dogs! In 1807, notes Quinion, a journalist published a story in the Weekly Political Register about a boy leading hounds away from a rabbit by dragging red herring across the trail. It was a parable meant to chastise the contemporary British media for being easily distracted by rumors, the fish being a figurative stand-in for a false clue. Now we're talking.
It defies logic
That 1807 reference opened the metaphorical floodgates on the "red herring" metaphor you've probably heard. In conversation, it's a distraction that sidetracks a discussion about the issue at-hand (much like a kipper might distract a dog from chasing a fox). In logic, it's a relevance fallacy called ignoratio elenchi -- "irrelevant conclusion".
Argument A is presented by person 1. Person 2 introduces argument B. Argument A is abandoned.
Here's an example of this fallacy. As you can see, worse than a mere distraction from cheeseburgers, the red herring is an irrational sleight of hand that frays the very fabric of conversation. When did we stop talking about delicious cheeseburgers, dammit?!
In finance, this fish is something entirely different
For Masters of the Universe, a "red herring" is no more dishonest than... well, anything else they do. In the IPO game, the term refers to an early-in-the-process prospectus that lists neither price nor number of shares issued. It's named "red herring" because the SEC mandates that the document carry a fire-engine-red disclaimer at the top that acknowledges the missing info.
I called a couple of banker types (both of whom asked to remain anonymous for this story) to verify. Weirdly, these two financiers have only heard the term used by "stuffy British dudes". So, totally anecdotally: the Brits freakin' love kippers.
Red herring isn't real, but you can eat it. It doesn't bother bloodhounds, but it might help horses. Politically, it's total chicanery. And banks need it to start the IPO party. It's the stuff riddle-dreams are made of.
On your way out, enjoy this trailer for 1997's Dustin Hoffman/Robert De Niro vehicle, Wag the Dog: perhaps the best movie ever made about the crimson fish that never swims.
Dave Infante is a senior writer for Thrillist, which is a website on the Internet. But can you really trust a writer on the Internet? Just kidding. That was a red herring. You can trust him, especially on Twitter at @dinfontay.