Clue or Red Herring


Whilst reading a book or watching a film, even a TV drama, I do enjoy picking up on clues. Those little moments when the writer throws in a stepping stone for us to move a little bit closer to solving the old question. Whodunnit?

I like to marvel at just how many of these clues are not really that, but so-called Red Herrings.

Where does the term Red Herring come from?

 According to an entry in Wikipedia

The origin of the expression is unknown. Conventional wisdom has long supposed it to be the use of a kipper (a strong-smelling smoked fish) to train hounds to follow a scent, or to divert them from the correct route when hunting; however, modern linguistic research suggests that the term was probably invented in 1807 by English polemicist William Cobbett, referring to one occasion on which he had supposedly used a kipper to divert hounds from chasing a hare, and was never an actual practice of hunters. The phrase was later borrowed to provide a formal name for the logical fallacy and literary device.>

I’ve always been interested in the origin of expressions we use every day without thinking. Those which have a meaning completely unrelated to its words. There are so many of these we mostly don’t even think about them:

  1. Bite the bulletUsed as a type of anaesthetic, patients would be given a bullet to bite
  2. Break the iceWhen ships were stuck the nearest nation would send their vessels to release it
  3. Mad as a hatterNothing to do with Lewis Carrol’s books but from a disease of hat makers, caused by Mercury used in the process, which brought about strange behaviour
  4. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwaterIn the early 1500s, people only bathed once a year. Not only that, but they also bathed in the same water without changing it! The adult males would bath first, then the females, leaving the children and babies to go last. By the time the babies got in, the water was clouded with filth. The poor mothers had to take extra care that their babies were not thrown out with the bathwater.
  5. Give the cold shoulderIn medieval England, it was customary to give a guest a cold piece of meat from the shoulder of mutton, pork, or beef chop when the host felt it was time for the guest to leave. This was a polite way to communicate, “You may leave, now.”

These are just a few of the many sayings we have in the English language.

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