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 Numbers and Letters on a Boarding Pass Mean?

iStock.com/Laurence Dutton
iStock.com/Laurence Dutton

Picture this: You're about to embark on a vacation or business trip, and you have to fly to reach your destination. You get to the airport, make it through the security checkpoint, and breathe a sigh of relief. What do you do next? After putting your shoes back on, you'll probably look at your boarding pass to double-check your gate number and boarding time. You might scan the information screen for your flight number to see if your plane will arrive on schedule, and at some point before boarding, you'll also probably check your zone and seat numbers.

Aside from these key nuggets of information, the other letters and numbers on your boarding pass might seem like gobbledygook. If you find this layout confusing, you're not the only one. Designer and creative director Tyler Thompson once commented that it was almost as if "someone put on a blindfold, drank a fifth of whiskey, spun around 100 times, got kicked in the face by a mule … and then just started puking numbers and letters onto the boarding pass at random."

Of course, these seemingly secret codes aren't exactly secret, and they aren't random either. So let's break it down, starting with the six-character code you'll see somewhere on your boarding pass. This is your Passenger Name Reference (or PNR for short). On some boarding passes—like the one shown below—it may be referred to as a record locator or reservation code.

A boarding pass
Piergiuliano Chesi, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

These alphanumeric codes are randomly generated, but they're also unique to your personal travel itinerary. They give airlines access to key information about your contact information and reservation—even your meal preferences. This is why it's ill-advised to post a photo of your boarding pass to social media while waiting at your airport gate. A hacker could theoretically use that PNR to access your account, and from there they could claim your frequent flier miles, change your flight details, or cancel your trip altogether.

You might also see a random standalone letter on your boarding pass. This references your booking class. "A" and "F," for instance, are typically used for first-class seats. The letter "Y" generally stands for economy class, while "Q" is an economy ticket purchased at a discounted rate. If you see a "B" you might be in luck—it means you could be eligible for a seat upgrade.

There might be other letters, too. "S/O," which is short for stopover, means you have a layover that lasts longer than four hours in the U.S. or more than 24 hours in another country. Likewise, "STPC" means "stopover paid by carrier," so you'll likely be put up in a hotel free of charge. Score!

One code you probably don’t want to see is "SSSS," which means your chances of getting stopped by TSA agents for a "Secondary Security Screening Selection" are high. For whatever reason, you've been identified as a higher security risk. This could be because you've booked last-minute or international one-way flights, or perhaps you've traveled to a "high-risk country." It could also be completely random.

Still confused? For a visual of what that all these codes look like on a boarding pass, check out this helpful infographic published by Lifehacker.

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

Does Having Allergies Mean That You Have A Decreased Immunity?

iStock.com/PeopleImages
iStock.com/PeopleImages

Tirumalai Kamala:

No, allergy isn't a sign of decreased immunity. It is a specific type of immune dysregulation. Autoimmunity, inflammatory disorders such as IBS and IBD, and even cancer are examples of other types of immune dysregulation.

Quality and target of immune responses and not their strength is the core issue in allergy. Let's see how.

—Allergens—substances known to induce allergy—are common. Some such as house dust mite and pollen are even ubiquitous.
—Everyone is exposed to allergens yet only a relative handful are clinically diagnosed with allergy.
—Thus allergens don't inherently trigger allergy. They can but only in those predisposed to allergy, not in everyone.
—Each allergic person makes pathological immune responses to not all but to only one or a few structurally related allergens while the non-allergic don't.
—Those diagnosed with allergy aren't necessarily more susceptible to other diseases.

If the immune response of each allergic person is selectively distorted when responding to specific allergens, what makes someone allergic? Obviously a mix of genetic and environmental factors.

[The] thing is allergy prevalence has spiked in recent decades, especially in developed countries, [which is] too short a time period for purely genetic mutation-based changes to be the sole cause, since that would take multiple generations to have such a population-wide effect. That tilts the balance towards environmental change, but what specifically?

Starting in the 1960s, epidemiologists began reporting a link between infections and allergy—[the] more infections in childhood, [the] less the allergy risk [this is called hygiene hypothesis]. Back then, microbiota weren't even a consideration but now we have learned better, so the hygiene hypothesis has expanded to include them.

Essentially, the idea is that the current Western style of living that rapidly developed over the 20th century fundamentally and dramatically reduced lifetime, and, crucially, early life exposure to environmental microorganisms, many of which would have normally become part of an individual's gut microbiota after they were born.

How could gut microbiota composition changes lead to selective allergies in specific individuals? Genetic predisposition should be taken as a given. However, natural history suggests that such predisposition transitioned to a full fledged clinical condition much more rarely in times past.

Let's briefly consider how that equation might have fundamentally changed in recent times. Consider indoor sanitation, piped chlorinated water, C-sections, milk formula, ultra-processed foods, lack of regular contact with farm animals (as a surrogate for nature) and profligate, ubiquitous, even excessive use of antimicrobial products such as antibiotics, to name just a few important factors.

Though some of these were beneficial in their own way, epidemiological data now suggests that such innovations in living conditions also disrupted the intimate association with the natural world that had been the norm for human societies since time immemorial. In the process such dramatic changes appear to have profoundly reduced human gut microbiota diversity among many, mostly in developed countries.

Unbeknownst to us, an epidemic of absence*, as Moises Velasquez-Manoff evocatively puts it, has thus been invisibly taking place across many human societies over the 20th century in lock-step with specific changes in living standards.

Such sudden and profound reduction in gut microbiota diversity thus emerges as the trigger that flips the normally hidden predisposition in some into clinically overt allergy. Actual mechanics of the process remain the subject of active research.

We (my colleague and I) propose a novel predictive mechanism for how disruption of regulatory T cell** function serves as the decisive and non-negotiable link between loss of specific microbiota and inflammatory disorders such as allergies. Time (and supporting data) will tell if we are right.

* An Epidemic of Absence: A New Way of Understanding Allergies and Autoimmune Diseases Reprint, Moises Velasquez-Manoff

** a small indispensable subset of CD4+ T cells.

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

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