Where Did the Phrase 'Red Herring' Come From?

iStock.com/Mathias Darmell
iStock.com/Mathias Darmell

You may have seen a red herring in a recent book or movie, but you probably only realized it after the fact. These misleading clues are designed to trick you into drawing an incorrect conclusion, and they're a popular ploy among storytellers of all stripes.

If you've seen or read the Harry Potter series—and really, who hasn’t?—then you may recall some of the many instances where J.K. Rowling employed this literary device. That endearing plot twist about the nature of Snape's character, for example, is likely one of the longest-running red herrings ever written.

Sometimes they aren't even subtle. Agatha Christie's murder mystery And Then There Were None directly mentions red herring in reference to a character's death, and a statue of a red herring appears in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. Perhaps most blatantly, a character in the cartoon A Pup Named Scooby-Doo who was constantly being blamed for myriad crimes was named—you guessed it—Red Herring.

But where does this literary device come from, and why is it named after a fish? For a bit of background: herring are naturally a silvery hue, but they turn reddish-brown when they're smoked. Long before refrigerators were invented, this was done to preserve the fish for months at a time. They can also be pretty smelly. As Gizmodo's io9 blog points out, it was believed that red herring were dragged against the ground to help train hounds to sniff out prey in the 17th century. Another theory was that escaped prisoners used the fish to cover their tracks and confuse the dogs that tailed them.

However, io9 notes that red herring were actually used to train horses rather than dogs, and only if the preferred choice—a dead cat—wasn't available. The idea was that the horses would get used to following the scent trail, which in turn would make them less likely to get spooked while "following the hounds amid the noise and bustle of a fox hunt," notes British etymologist and writer Michael Quinion, who researched the origin of the phrase red herring.

The actual origin of the figurative sense of the phrase can be traced back to the early 1800s. Around this time, English journalist William Cobbett wrote a presumably fictional story about how he had used red herring as a boy to throw hounds off the scent of a hare. He elaborated on this anecdote and used it to criticize some of his fellow journalists. "He used the story as a metaphor to decry the press, which had allowed itself to be misled by false information about a supposed defeat of Napoleon," Quinion writes in a blog. "This caused them to take their attention off important domestic matters."

According to Quinion, an extended version of this story was printed in 1833, and the idiom spread from there. Although many people are more familiar with red herrings in pop culture, they also crop up in political spheres and debates of all kinds. Robert J. Gula, the author of Nonsense: Red Herrings, Straw Men and Sacred Cows: How We Abuse Logic in Our Everyday Language, defines a red herring as "a detail or remark inserted into a discussion, either intentionally or unintentionally, that sidetracks the discussion."

The goal is to distract the listener or opponent from the original topic, and it's considered a type of flawed reasoning—or, more fancifully, a logical fallacy. This application of red herring seems to be more in line with its original usage, but as Quinion notes: "This does nothing to change the sense of red herring, of course: it's been for too long a fixed part of our vocabulary for it to change. But at least we now know its origin. Another obscure etymology has been nailed down."

Mental Floss's Three-Day Sale Includes Deals on Apple AirPods, Sony Wireless Headphones, and More

Apple
Apple

During this weekend's three-day sale on the Mental Floss Shop, you'll find deep discounts on products like AirPods, Martha Stewart’s bestselling pressure cooker, and more. Check out the best deals below.

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Apple

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Sony

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Sony

This Sony headphone model stands out for its extra bass and the 30 hours of battery life you get with each charge. And in between your favorite tracks, you can take hands-free calls and go seamlessly back into the music.

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Martha Stewart

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Jashen

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Evachill

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Gourmia

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Townew

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FenSens

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Noerden

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Prices subject to change.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links. If you haven't received your voucher or have a question about your order, contact the Mental Floss shop here.

Just How Clean Is the Air On an Airplane?

Air quality in airplane cabins has become a growing concern during the coronavirus pandemic.
Air quality in airplane cabins has become a growing concern during the coronavirus pandemic.
Leylanr/iStock via Getty Images

For millions of Americans and millions more abroad, the excitement of booking a flight has turned into concern. Being stuffed into an airplane cabin with hundreds of other people for hours at a time seems like a risk in light of the coronavirus continuing to be a threat to public health.

According to experts, plane travel is indeed a risk, and much of that risk has to do with social proximity. But the air itself might be cleaner than you think.

In a piece for Condé Nast Traveler, author William J. McGee writes that many airplanes have highly effective air cleaning systems that use high-efficiency particulate air, or HEPA, filtration to remove 99.97 percent of airborne contaminants, including viruses. (But not all. Some regional airlines may not have HEPA devices.) The clean air is pumped in through the ceiling and leaves below the window seats. The air is roughly 60 percent fresh and 40 percent filtered and recirculated constantly.

Would this impact how coronavirus or other germs may spread? Theoretically, yes. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other health organizations caution that no air filtration system can make up for being seated within a few feet of an infected person. It’s entirely possible that their germs will make their way to you before the circulating air removes them. And filtration isn’t a factor when travelers are standing near each other in line to board the aircraft.

Viruses aren’t the only air quality concern onboard a plane. Fumes from engine oil, hydraulic fluid, exhaust, and other sources can travel into the cabin. Pesticide applications may also leave a lingering odor.

The bottom line? If you have to be stuck in an enclosed space with several strangers, an airplane cabin might be the safest way to go about it. But variables like infected passengers, mask habits, and proximity make it impossible for anyone to offer assurances about safety. If you have a desire or need to fly, wearing a mask and keeping as much distance as possible between yourself and other passengers is the best way to approach it.

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