The existence of a distinct fish species known as the “red herring” is purely fictional. Instead, the term “red herring” refers to a specific preparation method for herring. To create a red herring, the herring is subjected to extensive smoking or brine curing, resulting in its distinctive red hue and potent aroma. This process aims to preserve the fish and enhance its flavor.
The red herring gained prominence in the realm of hunting as a valuable tool for training dogs. Hunters would utilize the strong and distinct scent of the red herring to teach their canines to follow a particular odor without getting sidetracked by other smells. By exposing the dogs to the unmistakable aroma of the red herring, they would learn to discriminate and focus solely on tracking that unique fishy scent, improving their ability to trail targets effectively.
Therefore, while there are no actual fish species named “red herring,” this term carries historical significance and represents a preserved and strongly scented herring that played a pivotal role in training hunting dogs to follow specific smells.
The crimson hue and intense fragrance of red herrings serve a dual purpose: to captivate attention and divert focus. Remarkably, this mirrors their role in the realm of mysteries. Hence, a red herring embodies a deceptive clue deliberately crafted to mislead and ensnare both the reader and often the protagonist. This intriguing connection prompts the question: How did a malodorous fish become a literary term denoting a misleading clue?
The origin of this phrase can be traced back to William Cobbett, a journalist who gained renown in 1807 for his scathing criticism of newspapers that prematurely reported Napoleon’s defeat. Cobbett likened their inaccurate reporting to the practice of employing the potent scent of red herrings to divert dogs’ attention away from other odors. He coined the phrase “political red herring” to describe this deliberate tactic aimed at distracting the public from pressing domestic issues of significant importance.
In the realm of literature, a red herring assumes the guise of a seemingly significant clue that ultimately proves to be false. Its purpose is to bewilder and misdirect both the reader and the main character. It could manifest as a tantalizing piece of gossip that lacks truth or relevance, or even a character’s meticulously kept diary that ultimately holds no significance. Although the reader perceives it as a crucial narrative element, it leads down unexpected paths. In the realm of mysteries, this plot twist featuring a red herring is perhaps the most prevalent. It occurs when all the evidence seemingly points to a particular character as the culprit, only for it to be revealed that they are innocent—or at least innocent of the crime under investigation.