Red Herring

If you make a point, every day, of thinking about and then learning about something of which you know little, you will expand your intellectual horizons.   That’s what I say.

Today, I explored the etymology of the term “red herring.” First, let me commit to what I mean by “red herring.”  A red herring, used as an idiom, is a diversion…something intended to lead someone to a false conclusion about an issue.  In “the flesh,” a red herring is a herring that has been salted and smoked, turning red in the process and possessing a very strong odor.  According to The Fallacy Files, “This is the most general fallacy of irrelevance. Any argument in which the premisses are logically unrelated to the conclusion commits this fallacy.”

According to Wikipedia, which increasingly seems to me to provide bad information, etymologyist Michael Quinlon claims the term “likely originated from an article published February 14, 1807 by a radical journalist named William Cobbett in his polemical Political Register. ”

But other sources, such as the Online Etymology Dictionary, say otherwise.  That source gives its origin to a Parliamentary speech dated March 20, 1782.

Still others have claimed the term’s use to describe a diversion toward a false conclusion can be traced back even further.  

Ultimately, the origin is not as important as the term.  And the term is not as important as the exercise of thinking about it and its history.  There.  I have expanded my intellectual horizons, if only by a slim margin.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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4 Responses to Red Herring

  1. Trish, I’ve only just glanced at your comment, as I’ve been buried in preparation for the move. But there’s more to your comment than just the words, I think. I’ll be in touch when things settle down…maybe in 3-4 days.

  2. Trish says:

    I think that Marcellus was saying “things are unsatisfactory; there is something wrong.” Or, you’re in a pickle!

  3. Trish says:

    Gee, I’ve got a “Red herring” for you, John, but only in the “term” of the idiom definition . Called a “divorce agreement”. Amazingly fishy even in a court of law, with document signed, sealed and delivered to the judge whom also signed. And yet those document very well might have little value. As Marcellus spoke in Hamlet, “”Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”. He was of course not referring to pickled herring.

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