• red herring •
Part of Speech: Noun phrase
Meaning: An issue or idea that serves no function other than to divert attention away from more important issues. Some would argue that the Iraq war was a red herring that diverted attention away from the War on Terrorism.
Notes: The first question that pops into mind is whether some herring are really red. There are white herring, black herring, gray herring and red herring, depending on how they are prepared. If smoked slowly over burning willow branches, herring do turn red and develop a distinctive aroma. I hope you noticed that the plural of this word is the same as the singular, following the pattern of fish. However, it is acceptable today to say herrings.
In Play: Red herring comes from the phrase "to draw a red herring across the track," originating in the second half of the 17th century. Because the scent was so strong and familiar to the dogs, farmers took up the practice of dragging a red herring around their fields to divert the howling hounds and stamping steeds of the fox hunt away from their crops. Fleeing criminals would also mislead blood hounds in hot pursuit by dragging the occasional red herring across their tracks and sending the dogs off on a wild goose chase.
Word History: Yes, a red herring can send you on a wild goose chase. This is another common English idiom with an interesting story. After all, exactly what is it that wild geese are supposed to chase? In fact, the wild goose chase was a kind of horse race of 17th century England in which the horses behind the leader had to follow the leader's course. This encouraged the leader to set as tortuous and confusing a course as possible to prevent the other horses from passing. A wild goose chase thus became a confusing chase in many directions with little chance of success. The name of this race was chosen because wild geese always strictly follow a leader in their migrations across the spring and autumn skies. (Today's word from Terry Miller of Apache Junction, Arizona was no red herring; it led to two interesting stories—for the price of one!)
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