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.