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Turning Over New Leaf

Monday, February 7, 2011

Something's Fishy




Something's Fishy



Every so often, like most writers, I wonder about the origins of words and phrases that have become part of the vernacular in the 21st century.

 
Last week, I was teaching a segment on The Great Gatsby and I mentioned a few terms like flapper and speakeasy only to discover my students had never heard those terms. It got me thinking about how many other phrases we use regularly have been adopted from generation to generation, with no actual knowledge of their derivations.

 
My mental gyrations eventually took me into the world of foxhunting, as I searched for the origin and use of the term red herring, which is often found in literature.

 
I am certain most of us are familiar with legendary fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes. It would be difficult to enjoy a Doyle mystery sans a red herring, or a narrative element intended to distract the reader from a more important event in the plot, usually a twist ending. In most of the Doyle mysteries, the concept is used to throw suspicion upon a character as the person who committed the crime, when later, it develops that someone else is the guilty party.

 
But where does the phrase emanate from? The term originates from the curing process that turns the tiny herring a red color with a distinctive smell. In the 16th century, hunters tied the pungent fish to a string and dragged it through the woods to teach fox-hunting puppies to follow a trail. Thereafter, the herring was used to confuse the young hounds in order to test their ability to stay with a faint scent of a fox. If a hunter put a young dog on the trail of a fox, and the hound followed the red herring scent instead of the fox scent, the dog was not yet ready for the hunt. Eventually, the puppies learned to follow the original scent rather than the stronger scent.

 
In the 15th Century, the term Red herring first appeared in the literal smoked-fish sense. However, by the late 19th century, the secondary meaning of false clue attached itself to the tiny fish, and its use in mystery novels became prominent.

 
One more interesting tidbit dates back to the American Revolution. The Red Coats worn by the British soldiers reflected the scarlet attire worn by fox-hunting officials. It was said that foxes housed the souls of good people who had died. If one did a fox a good turn, good luck would come his way. Apparently, we Yanks owe our plight, good, bad, or otherwise, to that smelly little fish that turns red when rotten.

18 comments:

  1. It is always intresting following meanings of words, sayings and even nursery rhymes. Thanks for popping over to my blog recently.

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  2. CJ: It is. It's fun! You are very welcome. I love your site.

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  3. You are like an educated version of the Enquirer! Enquiring minds want to know! I love visiting your blog!

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  4. What will we do when you discontinue blogging? My brain will begin to dryrot. Or continue to dryrot. Or pick up where it had left off... quite frankly, I am just not sure which of these is accurate. Anyway, thanks for this interesting tidbit.

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  5. you truly know a lot.
    cheers,

    lovely wriitng .reflections!

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  6. Well I enjoyed that! Red Herring =false clue. I'll remember that always!~Ames

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  7. I often wonder about the meaning of phrases like...it's raining cats and dogs. Interesting post JJ.

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  8. We both did a "word" related post this week! Yes, I am always fascinated by the etymology of words and expressions. There are so many "figures of speech" that you use without thinking and when you think about them, some of them don't even seem to make sense!

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  9. You may know this one, being Italian. In Italy a common slang is to call someone giving you a hard time a "box breaker." Do you have ANY idea where that came from? I don't, just wondering if you did :). Interesting post! Miriam@Meatless Meals For Meat Eaters

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  10. An interesting post thanks for sharing that, dee

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  11. A good one. I've always appreciated the minds of mystery writers. A story with good Red Herrings is a jewel. Thanks for exposing it.
    Love and Peace

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  12. Icky is the thought of rotten fish! - scents are so amazing aren't they? I enjoy how you go from flappers and speakeasy to foxhunting!...and great info on the hunting dog scents,reminds me a bit of Scent of a Woman and the great Al Pacino! It is so true about words like my mother who would never say couch and most of my co-workers have no idea what a Davenport is. I so enjoy when you dig into things...(and share them here) I am a big fan of learning/defining! and seeing where something came from, or where it went, and I have fun springing stuff like flappers on the unknowing public! The things they think, one co-worker about 22 yrs old thought Davenport was a cigarette brand! Amazing creatures we all are!

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  13. Thank you, Galen!

    Robin: I have no intention of stopping, so oil up that brain!

    Jungle: Thank you!

    Ames: It's a great way to remember things.

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  14. KB: Raining Cats and Dogs is an old metaphor. It is known that in the 16th century, animals would crawl on top of thatched huts in Europe to escape inclement weather. If it rained hard, they would fall through. Hence, the metaphor!

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  15. Akseli: I agree, and sometimes there are dozens of explanations difficult to verify.

    Miriam: Yes, unfortunately. It is Italian slang, considered profanity. Men frequently believe people are breaking theirs, but in Italy, ladies have equal rights.

    Thank you, Dee.

    Manzi: Thank you. I agree.

    Karen S: Now that's a post in and of itself!

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  16. JJ, that's so awful! I had no idea! Sorry I brought it up.

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  17. Hi JJ. I came to visit your Walkabout but can't see one. The link you posted goes to your home page. I'll go ahead and delete the link so you can come back when you're ready and share your walkabout post. Have a great day/night.

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  18. Miriam: You are wonderful.

    KB: I think I did not quite understand what I must do. I'll try again.

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