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What is the meaning and origin of the expression "red herring"?

(Ranjeet Gujati, Patna)

Sometimes when you are talking to someone, he/she asks you some very embarrassing questions. What do you normally do in these circumstances? You say something which you hope will distract his/her attention. You try to get the individual to talk about something else. This ploy that you use to divert the individual's attention is called a red herring. A "red herring" is normally used by people to divert the attention of others from something important; from the central point that is being considered. And who are the people who are well-known for introducing a red herring every now and then? Politicians, of course! Here are a few examples.

* The Minister said that he wouldn't answer the question because it involved national security; but that was a red herring to avoid a discussion of the terrible mistakes he had made.

* The detectives followed all the leads, but unfortunately they were all red herrings.

* The debate was getting really interesting, when unfortunately one of the questions the panelist raised proved to be a bit of a red herring.

A "herring" is a kind of fish. I understand it turns red only when it is "cured" - that is, when it is smoked and salted. The fish emits a very strong smell and in the past criminals made use of it to help them in their bid to escape. Convicts used the herring to help them throw dogs off the scent. Since the herring had a very strong smell, the police dogs followed the scent of the herring rather than that of the escaped convict! The original expression was "drag a red herring across the trail", but now it's been reduced to "red herring".

S. Upendran

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