What's up with that red herring?


I was sorely confused about the meaning of "red herring" when I was a kid. My father was the son of Scandinavian immigrants, so I'd heard about the pejorative use of the epithet "herring chokers" (the Norsky version of the N word) being applied to him and his family when he was growing up playing hockey on the mean streets of post-war St. Paul. So when I first heard about "red herrings" in the context of a Hardy Boys mystery novel, I was utterly baffled. I asked Miss Andre, my fourth grade teacher, to clarify this for me. She said something about "small fish you eat on crackers" and asked me for the ten thousandth time if I'd decided to accept Jesus Christ as my personal savior.

I finally went to the source I should have started with, the oracle of all things bookish: my big sister Diana.

"It's when the book tricks you," she said. "Like when Lucy sets up the football and then jerks it away right when Charlie Brown goes to kick it."

That explanation still works for me, but I did appreciate the expanded version I saw a while back in Word Detective:
Until over-fishing depleted their ranks, herring were so numerous and so important as a staple foodstuff to both America and Europe that many writers referred to the Atlantic Ocean as "the herring pond." The downside of the little critters, however, is that they spoil very rapidly and become inedible. The only practical way to preserve herring is to cure them with a combination of salting and smoking, and those herring most heavily cured turn a deep crimson color from the process. Voila, red herring.

Curing herring in this fashion not only preserves the fish and changes its color, but also gives it a distinctive smell, and thereby hangs the modern meaning of "red herring." In training hounds to hunt foxes, these red herrings, dragged on a string through the woods, were used to lay down a trail of scent for the dogs to follow. There is also some evidence that red herrings were, later in the training process, sometimes dragged across the scent trail of a real fox to test the ability of the hounds to ignore a false clue and stick to the scent of the fox. From this practice comes our use of "red herring" to mean a false clue or bogus issue designed to confuse one's opponent (or, in the case of our recent election, the voters). "Red herring" first appeared in the literal "smoked fish" sense around 1420, but the figurative "phony issue or false clue" sense didn't appear until around 1884.

There's also a lesson to be found in Cary Grant's classic line from North By Northwest:
Now you listen to me, I'm an advertising man, not a red herring. I've got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives and several bartenders that are dependent upon me, and I don't intend to disappoint them all by getting myself "slightly" killed.

No character, no event, no plot twist can ever be "just a red herring"; there has to be more to it. The character has a life of his own. The event has repercussions. The twist has a flavor. We don't want the reader to end up crashing on his tailbone like Charlie Brown in the wake of the football whip-away. The idea isn't to outfox the reader, but to lead them on a merry chase.

And now for your Sunday deliciousness, a moment from North By Northwest, a veritable red herring fest, though Eva Marie Saint recommends the trout. "A little trouty, but good."

Comments

Fascinating post. I never knew that about the origins of red herring, and they're my stock in trade.

Loved the clip, by the way. Alfred Hitchcock rules!

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