Michael Quinion of World Wide Words has thought for years that there was something fishy about the expression "red herring," meaning a false trail or distraction. If the red (smoked) herring scent was meant to lead foxhounds astray, who would have been laying down that trail, and why?
In today's weekly newsletter, however, he reports the mystery has been solved by a couple of scholars, and the newly verified story will soon take its place in the Oxford English Dictionary.
The metaphor had previously been traced to a 17th-century fox-hunting handbook suggesting that "a dead cat or fox should be dragged as a training-scent for the hounds, so that the horses could follow them. If you had no acceptably ripe dead animals handy . . . you could as a last resort use a red herring." But nothing in the source hinted that herring might be used to lay a false trail.
In fact, the false-scent sense apparently originated with journalist William Cobbett, "whose Weekly Political Register thundered in the years 1803-35 against the English political system."
He wrote a story, presumably fictional, in the issue of 14 February 1807 about how as a boy he had used a red herring as a decoy to deflect hounds chasing after a hare. 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; this caused them to take their attention off more important domestic matters: "It was a mere transitory effect of the political red-herring; for, on the Saturday, the scent became as cold as a stone."
Red herring as "false scent" is of course deeply embedded in the language -- mere facts are not about to dislodge it from its metaphorical perch. But now we know that the story it's based on was one writer's politically useful yarn, not an ancient fox-hunting ritual.