Red Herrings

I had a couple of conversations the other day on detective novels, in which red herrings were mentioned, and it reminded me of something I had been reading a few days before, as well as one verse of an old nursery rhyme, the words recorded in the 1800’s, which goes thus:

The man in the wilderness asked of me
How many strawberries grew in the sea.
I answered him, as I thought good,
As many as red herrings grew in the wood.

Pixabay image

It is supposedly one of the lesser-known nursery rhymes, but I came across it in one of the books my children had when they were small. Possibly, the Tale of Squirrel Nutkin. Again, there is an old song occurring along the English east coast called the Red Herring, of which these are the first two verses:

What shall we do with the red herring’s head?
Oh, we’ll make that into feather beds, and all such things,
We’ve red herrings and heads and feather beds, and all such things.

Of all the fish that swim in the sea, red herring it is the fish for me,
And all such things.

What shall we do with the red herring’s eyes?
Oh, we’ll make ’em into puddings and pies, and all such things,
We’ve red herrings and eyes and puddings and pies,
Red herrings and heads and feather beds, and all such things.

There seem to be many versions of this, one of which was collected by Cecil Sharp, well-known as one of the first people to travel around England in the early 1900’s collecting and writing down folk songs, afraid they would become lost as, in a rapidly modernising world, fewer and fewer people now sang them.

Unusually (because I never trust it as a source) I looked at Wikipedia which merely defined a red herring as a distraction, or something misleading. It suggests the term came from a strong smelling smoked kipper which could be dragged across a track to put hounds off of a scent.

And what it reminded me of was that a dictionary of the Sussex Dialect, published in 1875 does not have a particular entry for red herring, yet under ‘White-Herring’ is found the definition: A fresh herring, as distinguished from a dried one, which is called a red-herring. Delving a little deeper, we find references to dried, smoked, herrings – named red herrings – in use to mask the scent of trails both literally and figuratively, in a story published by William Cobbett in 1807 and also a couple of references from the 1780’s. There is apparently a bit of disagreement over where the phrase was used first in that context, but that doesn’t seem relevant here, it’s just interesting to find out that red herrings actually exist, and how they came to assume the role they have in literature and everyday conversation.

27 thoughts on “Red Herrings

  1. “Mick took a last drag on his Lucky Strike and flicked the butt into the gutter, eyes narrowed as he watched a Maltese falcon making off with the red herring…” It’s very interesting detective work, following these words and old expressions.

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  2. I knew the expression ‘red herring,’ and the history of the phrase being used to mean a distraction, but this added history is fascinating. The detail about smoking or drying the fish bringing out the red color makes sense. In Liberia, the dried fish that could be purchased at the market were reddish from smoking, and in Canada, the color of the famous Winnepeg goldeye also is a result of smoking the fish. As it happens, the Goldeye also is a member of the herring family!

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    1. When I was young, kippers (red herrings) were a favourite of my parents and my grandmother, although I didn’t like them. And that reminds me that when my grandmother came across something she found amazing, or unbelievable, she would exclaim ‘whiskers on a kipper!’ which is an expression I’ve never come across elsewhere

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  3. Interesting post, Mick. I haven’t heard of any of those phrases or rhymes about red herrings, so I’ve learned something new today. I always thought that red herring, apart from the distraction meaning, was known as a kipper, which my Mum used to love. That was a reddish colour and very salty (and had lots of tiny bones in it, which were a bit of a chore to remove). I might be thinking of another type of dried herring, though. Being a vegan, I’m not really aware of different common fish, but I do remember my Nan, who was Jewish and Polish, making pickled herring with gherkins, which I used to love. It was a very common treat back then, although, I daresay, it’s still very popular now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Kippers – yes, that’s exactly what they are. My nan was fond of them too, although I didn’t like them. And being vegetarian myself, I wouldn’t eat them, anyway. She and my parents used to like gherkins, too, although I’ve never liked any sort of pickled food.

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