I was watching one of my favorite TV shows, NCIS-LA, the other night. It was an episode which took place in a fish market. At one point, Deeks (Eric Christian Olsen) comes up holding a plastic bag in which a large, red fish is seen. Always the jokester, he displays it laughingly and says, ” Get it? Red Herring!” I laughed along with everyone else, and then found myself asking, “What the heck does red herring actually mean?”
I knew how the idiom is used in today’s parlance. It means that something is a diversion, meant to distract people from what is reallly happening. But where did the term red herring come from, in order to gather this well-established idom?
I found the answer in an online source called, of all things, hindu.com.
A “herring” is a kind of fish. I understand it turns red only when it is “cured” – that is, when it is smoked and salted. The fish emits a very strong smell and in the past criminals made use of it to help them in their bid to escape. Convicts used the herring to help them throw dogs off the scent. Since the herring had a very strong smell, the police dogs followed the scent of the herring rather than that of the escaped convict! The original expression was “drag a red herring across the trail”, but now it’s been reduced to “red herring”.
That makes all kind of sense. There are few times when an idiom is so easily defined.
The idiom red herring is used today in the area of debate and conversation. If a speaker wants to steer the conversation away from a very sensitive issue, (he) will throw out something that is “ear-catching” and will stimulate energy. In doing so, he is able to avoid being pinned down on a topic which could be damaging.
A person running for office, for instance, does not want to be questioned about (her) previous alignment with colleagues who wanted to raise taxes for a specific purpose. When questioned about this alliance, she throws out the comment that the person with whom she is accused of aligning has been charged in the past with using campaign funds for personal purchases. It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not…in the year of an election all kinds of things are said that have no validity. They are just ways of undermining the credibility of an opposing candidate.
In this case, however, the purpose is to get the reporter off the track of the tax issue. Hungry for a good story, the reporter will jump at the bait and pursue the red herring that has been thrown his way.
In the past two presidential elections, for instance, the whole issue about the birth of President Obama was a red herring. Whenever a conservative Republican was cornered on a legitimate topic, it was easy to drop the birther issue into the conversation, causing the topic to shift. Or a Democrat could drop the idea that Romney’s company closed down businesses, putting thousands of people out of work. Even though there was some truth to the issue, it was more of an emotional shift than anything else.
Be prepared to go fishing a lot in the next few months as the 2014 mid-term elections heat up. Experts tell me there’s going to be a run on red herrings.
Illustration Credit: pearlsofprofundity.com