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."

Why Are Barns Often Painted Red?

iStock/Ron and Patty Thomas
iStock/Ron and Patty Thomas

Beginning with the earliest American settlements and continuing into the 18th century, most barns weren't painted at all. Early American barn builders took sun exposure, temperature, moisture, wind, and water drainage patterns into account when placing and building barns, and they seasoned the wood (that is, they reduced the moisture content) accordingly. The right type of wood in the right environment held up fine without any paint.

Toward the end of the 1700s, these old-school methods of barn planning and building fell by the wayside. People sought a quicker, easier fix for preserving their barns—a way to coat and seal the wood to protect it from sunlight and moisture damage. Farmers began making their own coating from a mix of linseed oil (a tawny oil derived from the flax seeds), milk, and lime. It dried quickly and lasted a long time, but it didn't really protect the wood from mold and wasn't quite like the "barn red"we know today—it was more of a burnt orange, really.

Turning Red

The problem with mold is that it decays wood and, in large quantities, can pose health risks to people and animals. Rust, it turns out, kills mold and other types of fungi, so farmers began adding ferrous oxide (rusted iron) to the linseed oil mix. A little bit of rust went a long way in protecting the wood, and it gave the barn a nice red hue.

By the late 19th century, mass-produced paints made with chemical pigments became available to most people. Red was the least expensive color, so it remained the most popular for use on barns, except for a brief period when whitewash became cheaper and white barns started popping up. (White barns were also common on dairy farms in some parts of Pennsylvania, central Maryland, and the Shenandoah Valley, possibly because of the color's association with cleanliness and purity.)

Throughout Appalachia (a historically poorer region), many barns went unpainted for lack of money. In the tobacco regions of Kentucky and North Carolina, black and brown barns were the norm, since the dark colors helped heat the barn and cure tobacco.

Today, many barns are still painted the color traditionally used in a given region, with red still dominating the Northeast and Midwest.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, send it to bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

This story was updated in 2019.

Is There An International Standard Governing Scientific Naming Conventions?

iStock/Grafissimo
iStock/Grafissimo

Jelle Zijlstra:

There are lots of different systems of scientific names with different conventions or rules governing them: chemicals, genes, stars, archeological cultures, and so on. But the one I'm familiar with is the naming system for animals.

The modern naming system for animals derives from the works of the 18th-century Swedish naturalist Carl von Linné (Latinized to Carolus Linnaeus). Linnaeus introduced the system of binominal nomenclature, where animals have names composed of two parts, like Homo sapiens. Linnaeus wrote in Latin and most his names were of Latin origin, although a few were derived from Greek, like Rhinoceros for rhinos, or from other languages, like Sus babyrussa for the babirusa (from Malay).

Other people also started using Linnaeus's system, and a system of rules was developed and eventually codified into what is now called the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN). In this case, therefore, there is indeed an international standard governing naming conventions. However, it does not put very strict requirements on the derivation of names: they are merely required to be in the Latin alphabet.

In practice a lot of well-known scientific names are derived from Greek. This is especially true for genus names: Tyrannosaurus, Macropus (kangaroos), Drosophila (fruit flies), Caenorhabditis (nematode worms), Peromyscus (deermice), and so on. Species names are more likely to be derived from Latin (e.g., T. rex, C. elegans, P. maniculatus, but Drosophila melanogaster is Greek again).

One interesting pattern I've noticed in mammals is that even when Linnaeus named the first genus in a group by a Latin name, usually most later names for related genera use Greek roots instead. For example, Linnaeus gave the name Mus to mice, and that is still the genus name for the house mouse, but most related genera use compounds of the Greek-derived root -mys (from μῦς), which also means "mouse." Similarly, bats for Linnaeus were Vespertilio, but there are many more compounds of the Greek root -nycteris (νυκτερίς); pigs are Sus, but compounds usually use Greek -choerus (χοῖρος) or -hys/-hyus (ὗς); weasels are Mustela but compounds usually use -gale or -galea (γαλέη); horses are Equus but compounds use -hippus (ἵππος).

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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