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.