Red herring

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This is about the idiom. For other uses see red herring


Red herring is an idiomatic expression referring to the rhetorical or literary tactic of diverting attention away from an item of significance. For example, in mystery fiction, where the identity of a criminal is being sought, an innocent party may be purposefully cast in a guilty light by the author through the employment of deceptive clues, false emphasis, 'loaded' words or other descriptive tricks of the trade. The reader's suspicions are thus misdirected, allowing the true culprit to go (temporarily at least) undetected. A false protagonist is another example of a red herring.

In a literal sense, there is no such fish species as a "red herring"; rather it refers to a particularly strong kipper, meaning a fish—typically a herring but not always—that has been strongly cured in brine and/or heavily smoked. This process makes the fish particularly pungent smelling and, with a strong enough brine, turns its flesh reddish. This term, in its literal sense as a strongly cured kipper, can be dated to the late Middle Ages, as quoted here c1400 Femina (Trin-C B.14.40) 27: "He eteþ no ffyssh But heryng red." Samuel Pepys used it in his diary entry of 28 February 1660 "Up in the morning, and had some red...
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