Tuesday, September 11, 2012

That Old Chesnut: Red herrings: probably not actually related to fox-hunting or whatever

Cuter than Benedict Cumberbatch?
Hey kids, do you ever wonder why people talk about deliberately misleading clues as "red herrings"? No? Okay, move along then. Anyway, now that it's just us nerds left, let me talk to you about ye olde* red herring. So people eat fish. Which is objectively gross and fishy, but whatever, especially in olden times, they couldn't go to the store and buy mac and cheese, so they had to take what they could get. Also, people would dry and smoke meats and fishes and such in order to keep them from rotting immediately because, you know, there were no refrigerators back in the day. Apparently some of these processes turn herrings red. Because usually they are like this:
I would be depressed too if I were a dead fish.
Also, these smoky salty processes make the herring not just red, but take on quite a distinctive odor--apparently one above and beyond the horror that is just regular "fishy." According to Michael Quinion, the semi-folk etymology of the figurative sense of red herring--something deliberately meant to throw you off the correct scent--involved stories of hunters trying to train their horses or hounds or something. It's not interesting, but mostly probably never really happened, but was basically invented in an 1807 story by "radical journalist" and pamphleteer (best job title EVER) William Cobbett, who claimed to have, as a child, used red herring to distract his own hounds from the trail of a hare. Apparently the idea caught on though, and people starting throwing around "red herring" as a synonym for something that is intentionally misleading. Which is all to say that I wrote this nerd post as my own red herring to make people think I still care about things besides caffeine blogging. So TAKE THAT! Distracted yet?

*Oh, I'm sorry, have you been pronouncing it "ye?" Guess what, that y has just been confused with old-timey lettering that used a thorn for "th" sounds. It was spoken as "the" all along, you silly geese!

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