Where Did the Phrase 'Red Herring' Come From?

iStock.com/Mathias Darmell
iStock.com/Mathias Darmell

You may have seen a red herring in a recent book or movie, but you probably only realized it after the fact. These misleading clues are designed to trick you into drawing an incorrect conclusion, and they're a popular ploy among storytellers of all stripes.

If you've seen or read the Harry Potter series—and really, who hasn’t?—then you may recall some of the many instances where J.K. Rowling employed this literary device. That endearing plot twist about the nature of Snape's character, for example, is likely one of the longest-running red herrings ever written.

Sometimes they aren't even subtle. Agatha Christie's murder mystery And Then There Were None directly mentions red herring in reference to a character's death, and a statue of a red herring appears in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. Perhaps most blatantly, a character in the cartoon A Pup Named Scooby-Doo who was constantly being blamed for myriad crimes was named—you guessed it—Red Herring.

But where does this literary device come from, and why is it named after a fish? For a bit of background: herring are naturally a silvery hue, but they turn reddish-brown when they're smoked. Long before refrigerators were invented, this was done to preserve the fish for months at a time. They can also be pretty smelly. As Gizmodo's io9 blog points out, it was believed that red herring were dragged against the ground to help train hounds to sniff out prey in the 17th century. Another theory was that escaped prisoners used the fish to cover their tracks and confuse the dogs that tailed them.

However, io9 notes that red herring were actually used to train horses rather than dogs, and only if the preferred choice—a dead cat—wasn't available. The idea was that the horses would get used to following the scent trail, which in turn would make them less likely to get spooked while "following the hounds amid the noise and bustle of a fox hunt," notes British etymologist and writer Michael Quinion, who researched the origin of the phrase red herring.

The actual origin of the figurative sense of the phrase can be traced back to the early 1800s. Around this time, English journalist William Cobbett wrote a presumably fictional story about how he had used red herring as a boy to throw hounds off the scent of a hare. He elaborated on this anecdote and used it to criticize some of his fellow journalists. "He used the story as a metaphor to decry the press, which had allowed itself to be misled by false information about a supposed defeat of Napoleon," Quinion writes in a blog. "This caused them to take their attention off important domestic matters."

According to Quinion, an extended version of this story was printed in 1833, and the idiom spread from there. Although many people are more familiar with red herrings in pop culture, they also crop up in political spheres and debates of all kinds. Robert J. Gula, the author of Nonsense: Red Herrings, Straw Men and Sacred Cows: How We Abuse Logic in Our Everyday Language, defines a red herring as "a detail or remark inserted into a discussion, either intentionally or unintentionally, that sidetracks the discussion."

The goal is to distract the listener or opponent from the original topic, and it's considered a type of flawed reasoning—or, more fancifully, a logical fallacy. This application of red herring seems to be more in line with its original usage, but as Quinion notes: "This does nothing to change the sense of red herring, of course: it's been for too long a fixed part of our vocabulary for it to change. But at least we now know its origin. Another obscure etymology has been nailed down."

What Do the Terms on Energy-Saving Light Bulbs Mean?

Scott Olson, Getty Images
Scott Olson, Getty Images

There's a reason your parents used to scold you for not turning off a light when you left a room. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, an average American household uses up to 5 percent of their total energy expenditure on lighting. Living rooms get flooded with light. Dining rooms and dens are full of lighting accents. Motion lights, hallway lights, bathroom vanity lights, lamps—we like our lives to be nice and bright.

Fortunately, energy-saving lighting sources have largely replaced the conventional incandescent bulbs that once used up a substantial amount of power. Those bulbs heated up a coil, or filament, of tungsten wire that gave off light. Roughly 90 percent of the energy they passed on was in the form of heat, which siphoned off energy and kept utility bills inflated. Today's bulbs brighten without the waste. That's the good news. The bad? The varieties of bulbs can be confusing. If you've ever been lost in the fixtures section of the hardware store, here's a quick primer on what these terms mean.

Halogen Incandescent:

These are incandescent light bulbs that contain a halogen gas-filled capsule around the filament to help increase energy efficiency. While cheaper to operate than a conventional incandescent bulb—they use 25 to 30 percent less energy—they don't produce as much of a cost savings as other options. On the plus side, they reach full brightness immediately. Other choices may take time to warm up.

Compact Florescent Lamp (CFL):

When you see a coiled light bulb, it’s likely to be a CFL, which is simply a downsized version of the tubular florescent lighting seen in commercial spaces. Instead of an electric current traveling through a filament like in an incandescent bulb, the current goes through a tube containing argon and mercury vapor. The resulting ultraviolet light activates phosphor inside the tube, which emits light. It uses one-third of the energy of a halogen incandescent. The downside? They can take a little time to warm up, especially if used outdoors. They also contain mercury, a potential health hazard if the bulb breaks. (See the "mercury" entry below.)

Light Emitting Diode (LED):

This type of bulb uses a semiconductor to convert electricity into light. In addition to being energy-efficient, they usually last eight to 25 times longer than halogen incandescent bulbs and four to eight times longer than CFLs—perhaps as long as 18 to 46 years. You'll probably pay more up front, but the expense is offset by their durability. Most LEDs are compatible with dimming switches, too. Most CFLs aren't, so if that's important to you, you'll want to stick with LED.

Energy Star:

A bulb with an Energy Star label was evaluated by a third party to make sure its energy-saving claims are accurate, and they'll typically have a longer warranty than bulbs without the endorsement.

But what about the "nutritional label" style information box that appears on light bulb packaging? Let's take a closer look.

An example of a label that appears on energy-efficient light bulb packaging is pictured
Federal Trade Commission

Brightness:

You have probably inferred that brightness refers to the light output given off by a bulb. This is measured in lumens and rounded off to the nearest five. (A bulb will never be 822 lumens. It's 820.) The higher the number, the brighter the bulb. Since you're probably used to shopping by wattage, consider that a bulb with 800 lumens is roughly the equivalent of a 60-watt incandescent. A 1100 lumen bulb will resemble a 75-watt bulb.

Estimated Energy Cost:

This is a rough estimate of much it will cost an average household to operate the bulb. What's average? The wattage of the bulb is calculated with three hours of daily operation at a cost of 11 cents per kilowatt. Your actual cost will go up or down whether you use it more or less or pay your energy supplier a different amount.

Life:

This is how long the bulb is expected to last based on the same usage estimated for the energy cost and rounded to the nearest tenth of a year.

Light Appearance:

This refers to the color temperature of the bulb measured in Kelvin, a temperature scale measuring light color. The range is from 2600 K (yellow and warm) to 6600 K (blue and cool). Bright white is about 3500 K. You should probably avoid anything above 3000 K for any interior room.

Energy Used:

This is how much energy the bulb will require and is measured in watts. The lower the wattage, the cheaper it costs to operate. This is where the energy savings materializes, as a 10-watt LED bulb may give off as much light as an old 60-watt incandescent.

Color Rendering Index (CRI):

It's not on all bulb packaging, but if you see it, it refers to how accurate colors will appear under the bulb's light on a scale of 0 to 100. Halogen incandescent bulbs score high. CFLs and LEDs aren't quite as accurate, though they may still get the job done. Try to get a high CRI if you'll be using the bulbs in a bathroom, as skin tone can appear off with lower CRI numbers.

Mercury:

You might see some CFL bulb packaging with a mercury disclosure. This isn't an issue if the bulb remains intact, but if it breaks, it might release potentially hazardous mercury vapor and the introduce the very small possibility of mercury poisoning. Avoid using CFL bulbs in kids' rooms if there's potential for knocking over a lamp or light. Broken bulbs that contain mercury should be cleaned up by following Environmental Protection Agency guidelines—picked up with tape, not vacuumed—and disposed of properly. Old bulbs should be recycled.

Does the Full Moon Really Make People Act Crazy?

iStock.com/voraorn
iStock.com/voraorn

Along with Mercury in retrograde, the full moon is a pretty popular scapegoat for bad luck and bizarre behavior. Encounter someone acting strangely? Blame it on the lunar phases! It's said that crime rates increase and emergency rooms are much busier during the full moon (though a 2004 study debunked this claim). Plus, there's that whole werewolf thing. Why would this be? The reasoning is that the Moon, which affects the ocean's tides, probably exerts a similar effect on us, because the human body is made mostly of water.

This belief that the Moon influences behavior is so widely held—reportedly, even 80 percent of nurses and 64 percent of doctors think it's true, according to a 1987 paper published in the Journal of Emergency Medicine [PDF]—that in 2012 a team of researchers at Université Laval's School of Psychology in Canada decided to find out if mental illness and the phases of the Moon are linked [PDF].

To test the theory, the researchers evaluated 771 patients who visited emergency rooms at two hospitals in Montreal between March 2005 and April 2008. The patients chosen complained of chest pains, which doctors could not determine a medical cause for the pains. Many of the patients suffered from panic attacks, anxiety and mood disorders, or suicidal thoughts.

When the researchers compared the time of the visits to the phases of the Moon, they found that there was no link between the incidence of psychological problems and the four lunar phases, with one exception—in the last lunar quarter, anxiety disorders were 32 percent less frequent. "This may be coincidental or due to factors we did not take into account," Dr. Geneviève Belleville, who directed the team of researchers, said. "But one thing is certain: we observed no full-moon or new-moon effect on psychological problems."

So rest easy (or maybe not): If people seem to act crazy during the full Moon, their behavior is likely pretty similar during the rest of the lunar cycle as well.

This story was updated in 2019.

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