All you need to know about the expression 'red herring'

A herring, for the uninitiated, is a fish that, if smoked slowly over burning willow branches, turns red and develops a distinctive aroma

By Shashi Tharoor

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Published: Fri 29 Sep 2023, 12:09 AM

A “red herring”, as many of you are no doubt already aware, is an issue or idea that serves no function other than to divert attention away from more important issues. Some would argue that governments in trouble over some major governance setback typically create a controversy over another, irrelevant issue as a red herring to divert attention away from their own failures.

A herring, for the uninitiated, is a fish that, if smoked slowly over burning willow branches, turns red and develops a distinctive aroma. Until over-fishing depleted their ranks, herring were so plentiful and so common a staple foodstuff for Europeans, especially Danes, that many writers referred to the Atlantic Ocean as “the herring pond”. Since dead herring spoil rapidly and become inedible, the only practical way to preserve them is with a combination of salting and smoking, which turns them a deep crimson from the process, though they still give off a strong odour. “Red herring” first appeared in the literal “smoked fish” sense around 1420, but the figurative sense of “phony issue or false clue” didn't appear until much later.

The expression “red herring” comes from the 17th century phrase “to draw a red herring across the track,” when farmers were said to drag a red herring around their fields so that the fox-hunters’ howling hounds and stamping horses, recoiling from the strong smell of the dead fish, would be diverted away from their crops. Fleeing criminals would also mislead blood hounds in hot pursuit by dragging the occasional red herring across their tracks and sending the dogs off on — another idiom for you — a “wild goose chase”.

Where does that odd term come from, you may ask, since most of us have never seen a wild goose being chased. Wild geese, apparently, always strictly follow a leader in their spring and autumn migrations; whatever route the lead goose takes, however straight or circuitous, the rest of the flock follows. The term then lent itself to an odd horse race (also in 17th century England) in which the horses behind the leader had to follow the leader's course without losing their way, while the leader set out on as tortuous and confusing a route as possible to prevent the other horses from overtaking him. This was a “wild goose chase” — a confusing hunt in many directions with little chance of success. The sport is no longer practised, but the expression remains!

Now I mention all this because, in his bestselling mystery novel, The Da Vinci Code, author Dan Brown names a character Manuel Aringarosa. You would need to know some Italian to realise the purpose the character serves in the novel — for “aringa” is the Italian word for “herring” and “rosa” means “red”. In other word, the author is knowingly hinting (while quite aware that most of his non-Italian readers wouldn’t realise this) that the character of Manuel Aringarosa, by his very name, points to a misleading, or false, clue. It is a common literary device used in mysteries, detective stories and thrillers that can lead readers down a false path or otherwise distract them from guessing until the very end what’s really going on. Red herrings are used to lead readers astray (on a “wild goose chase”!) by hinting at possible solutions that are in fact not the “real” ones — thereby surprising them even more when the solution is revealed.

A “red herring” is not the same as a “straw man”. A straw man argument is one in which you distort, exaggerate, or mischaracterise your opponent’s stance in a debate or argument, so that you can refute it all the more easily. Unlike the straw man, a red herring does not distort reality; it is only irrelevant to it.

An irrelevancy is also, sometimes, a “non sequitur” — a term referring to a leap of logic, so that what you are saying in your argument has no connection to what came before it. This has most in common with the red herring fallacy — a non sequitur is irrelevant information that can create a distraction, but isn’t pertinent to the issue at hand. I hope all this hasn’t led you on a wild goose chase!

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