Literary Quiz

Google not and tell me:

What is the origin of the phrase “red herring” and how is it of particular interest on this day?


Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

27 thoughts on “Literary Quiz”

  1. IIRC, the herring isn’t actually “red”, but rather stinky, and is used to divert tracking dogs. As for it’s interest today, I’m clueless.

    1. …and is used to divert tracking dogs.


      And as Brett hints at: “to divert” the hunters (and their guns) trailing behind the dogs.
      Herrings are thus anti-gun and anti-Second Amendment.
      And if we allow herrings, soon enough the slippery slope will lead to a ban on all guns.


      1. “Herrings are thus anti-gun and anti-Second Amendment.”

        No, herrings are yummy, especially when pickled and served in cream sauce. Had some for breakfast just this morning.

          1. Herring is gross.

            For oily fish, you should stick with mackerel or salmon/lox. I have it on good authority that Professor Kleiman’s newest method for reducing crime, deterring violence and lowering society’s incarceration costs is to punish offenders by forcing them to eat herring and sardines.


        1. Sardines on toast, or untoasted good rye bread, are indeed terrific. But don’t get the skinless boneless kind, or, heaven forfend, the cans packed in water.


          The Red Herring Award goes to Brett. He was the first to post a wrong answer.
          (Extra points too, for doing it with so much confidence.)

      2. And if we allow herrings, soon enough the slippery slope will lead to a ban on all guns.

        That’s obviously someone else commenting as Freeman.

        Not cool to impersonate someone else in comment fora. Juvenile prank. Of the sites I visit and comment on, this one has — by far — the largest amount of infantile bilge to wade through. It’s a disgrace that anything even remotely related to guns so often turns into an insult-fest in the comments here.

  2. What’s green, hangs on the wall, and whistles?
    I don’t know. A herring.
    A herring? A herring isn’t green.
    So I painted it green.
    A herring doesn’t hang on the wall!
    So I nailed it on the wall.
    A herring doesn’t whistle.
    So I lied about the whistle.

  3. Oops; to make it clearer, it should have been:

    A: What’s green, hangs on the wall, and whistles?
    B: I don’t know.
    A: A herring.
    B: A herring? A herring isn’t green.
    A: So I painted it green.
    B: A herring doesn’t hang on the wall!
    A: So I nailed it on the wall.
    B: A herring doesn’t whistle.
    A: So I lied about the whistle.

    1. Actually, this is a variant of a Russian avant-guarde joke from the 1920s. “What’s green, hanging in the living room and screaming?” The first two comments are much the same as you relate, but the third question, “Why screaming?” bears a totally different answer that sheds light on the joke’s origin–“So it would be more difficult to guess!” This version of the joke is related by Roman Jakobson in one of his pieces on Structuralism.

  4. Since before WWII the Shad Planking as been an annual rite of spring in Virginia. Shad are roasted on wood planks, and served “whenever they’re ready.” Meanwhile, the good old boys enjoy a drink and an exchange of tall tales and general b.s.

    Back in the day, when the Democratic Party ruled Virginia, the Shad Planking was the party gathering where the bosses picked their candidates for upcoming elections. In recent years, as the Republican Party gained prominence in the state, the Shad Planking has become a bipartisan event, where politicians (and non-politicians, as well) of all colors gather to share food, drink, good stories and juicy rumors.

    Because of it’s origin as a Democratic Party event, the Republican Party has the disadvantage that many folks still perceive the Shad Planking as a Democratic Party affair. Therefore, in order to create an event uniquely their own, some years ago the Republicans began holding a Herring Fry. When the Blue and Red labels began to be used to identify the two parties, in order to clarify it politically, the Republicans began calling it the Red Herring Fry. It’s become the traditional day Virginia Republicans originate the false rumors and misleading information they will use during the subsequent months.

    And since the Republican strategy in Virginia has become so successful, the term Red Herring has gained national recognition.

  5. IIRC, it has something to do with a securities prospectus. (I didn’t cheat.)

    1. The prospectus is indeed called a “red herring,” possibly because some of the print is in red, but I don’t think that’s the origin of the term. It doesn’t seem to be related to the more common meaning.

  6. The commonly-accepted explanation is at least partly specious.

    I recommend searching Michael Quinnion’s invaluable World Wide Words blog for the deeper answer when you decide to seek it.

    1. MQ is very good at what he does, but there’s nothing “partly” about the explanation. “Red herring” is what passes for grim-looking “kippered herring” or “smoked kippers” in US markets–dry, smoked fillets, brown or nearly black in color, that are produced from herring that is originally too low a quality to be sold pickled (brined or corned). Some bright newspaper editor in the early 1800s pulled a practical joke by publishing a story about hunting dogs being diverted from their task by someone dragging a red herring through the bushes (see Paul Gilbert’s comment below). The story is an acknowledged fabrication, but the expression apparently stuck, eventually displacing the original meaning of “red herring”. Sorry to disappoint Keith, but there is no *legitimate* explanation for the expression.

  7. March 9th is to me forever and always Cassie Day. In the smartest move I ever made in my life, on March 9, 1997, I brought a beautiful Irish terrier named Cassie into my home, which she brightened, along with my life, for the next twelve years. The Irish terrier has been known variously as the Irish red terrier and the red devil. That’s the red part. Dogs, like cats, love to eat fish. The explanation is obviously in there somewhere. Someone else will have to make all the connections. I win!

  8. Yesterday was the 250th anniversary of the birth of William Cobbett, an English pamphleteer born in Bristol who in a story written in 1807 coined the term “red herring” to describe how hunters train dogs to ignore distractions and follow a prey’s scent. The term was probably news to hunters of the day because Cobbett completely made it up.

    1. Well done Paul Gilbert (Except that Cobbett was born in Farnham rather than Bristol).

      1. My first impulse (when I read this on Monday, March 11, at 5:50 PM EST), was to consult wikipedia–which, for a wonder, had it right.

      2. Sorry about that. I’m not sure why I wrote Bristol. We wiki-ed this a while back to settle a newsroom debate about the meaning and origin of “red herring.” Up until then, I thought hunters really did use fish to train dogs that way. I have never been hunting, mind you, but it seemed, well, logical. Plus, I figured no one would make something like that up. Well, some troublemaker named Mr. Cobbett of Farnham did, and that fact cost me a bottle of soda. An article in The Telegraph commemorating the anniversary of Cobbett’s birth reminded me of that spirited discussion in the newsroom.

  9. The basal meaning of “red herring” is a bloater, and by extention a kipper. Since this is a literary quiz, I suppose we need to reference Cobbett, who AFAIK originated the use of the term for a rhetorical device, by conscious analogy with the usage Bellmore describes up thread – although I should guess that in Cobbett’s day stinky fish were more likely used to train hounds to follow a scent than to distract them.

  10. “Next, to draw on hounds to a scent, to a red herring skin there is nothing comparable.”
    Thomas Nashe, Lenten Stuff, 1599. (page 40)

    Cobbett was perhaps the first to use it as a metaphor, see

    But he didn’t make up the story that a herring could be used to divert hounds. That idea had famously been put into print 200 years earlier.

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