Monday, February 7, 2011
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.