Talk:Red herring

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Can of worms[edit]

The link to Can of worms in the "See also" section points to a disambiguation page with a lot of choices. Which one should it point to? (talk) 01:59, 29 March 2014 (UTC)

It should point to Wiktionary since there is no Wikipedia article for the idiom, in which case it probably doesn't belong in See Also. -- GreenC 02:47, 29 March 2014 (UTC)

Origin of the phrase[edit]

The article dates the phrase to the year 1807 and to William Cobbett. Though, Online Etymology Dictionary [1] dates the figurative use to a much earlier date, and lists the following:

Though I have not the honour of being one of those sagacious country gentlemen, who have so long vociferated for the American war, who have so long run on the red-herring scent of American taxation before they found out there was no game on foot; (etc.) [Parliamentary speech dated March 20, 1782, reprinted in "Beauties of the British Senate," London, 1786]

(Perhaps William Cobbett popularized rather than coined the phrase.) - Mike Rosoft (talk) 18:29, 25 May 2014 (UTC)

Interesting, thanks. In previous research I never came across the 1782 quote (including at Online Etymology Dictionary) so a new finding. The curious thing is the quote is online here (first column middle) in a book edited by William Cobbett in 1814. Cobbett amassed historical Parliament debates which eventually became became Hansard. A strange coincidence. There is no doubt Cobbett was responsible for popularizing the figurative sense. The question then becomes is the 1782 instance a legitimate record, or something put into the record after the fact (Parliament records are not completely verbatim like today rather were edited). Or possibly this is where Cobbett picked up the figurative sense. Or we can say the figurative sense has unknown origins, dating from at least 1782, but was popularized by Cobbett. Tough call, really needs an etymologist to weigh in (for reliable sourcing purposes). -- GreenC 20:46, 25 May 2014 (UTC)

The origin of the phrase most certainly IS known, and the best description I've read or heard thus far comes from the fictional, though reality-based and very well-researched TV show, NCIS: "You know the derivation? Fox and hounds. Well, the only practical way to cure a herring is by smoking and salting. Yes, it turns the fish a crimson red and gives it a very distinctive smell. In the early 15th century, they used to train their hounds to hunt foxes by dragging a red herring along the ground on a piece of string to leave a trail of scent for the dogs to follow. Then, later on, they would drag a red herring across the scent trail of a real fox to test the dog's ability to ignore a false scent, or false clue. Hence, the term 'red herring' became to mean a false clue designed to fool one's opponent." - Ducky, NCIS: Naval Criminal Investigation Service. (February 15, 2005). "Witness," Season 2, Episode 14. Belisarius Productions, CBS Paramount Network Television, Paramount Television (in association with) (as Paramount A Viacom Company)Clepsydrae (talk) 03:05, 27 December 2015 (UTC)

Yes.. dog training is already in the article. NCIS is a fictional TV show, not a reliable source nor saying anything not already in the article. -- GreenC 06:10, 27 December 2015 (UTC)
Don't be snarky, and please stop being ignorant. Although NCIS is a fictional show, it's real-world research and accuracy of information is well-known. By "well-known" I refer to "common knowledge," as in widely-accepted fact, an acceptable condition within Wikipedia's rules not requiring its own substantiation. If you're not aware of this, that's your problem, but you should not delete knowledge useful for your other readers. As for the "Mythbusters" reference, they used a dog that was never trained using red herring, hence their erroneous conclusion. Whether hunting dogs or military/law enforce drug dogs, they must be trained to reject false positives, as hounds trained in the red herring method were. The Mythbusters dog was not. In light of the above, I reverted your unwarranted deletion of my edit. Clepsydrae (talk) 16:56, 27 December 2015 (UTC)
Addendum: I have read the 2008 article by Michael Quinion and his references to William Cobbett's Weekly Political Register, particularly the 14 February 1807 issue ( Sorry, but this does not jibe with many references to its much earlier use, as far back as 1420. Indeed, even Quinion makes the same reference: "The first reference to them in English is from around 1420, although the technique is older than that. Within a century, they had been immortalised in the expression neither fish, nor flesh, nor good red herring (later, fowl was added or replaced flesh), meaning something that was nondescript or neither one thing nor another." Merriam-Webster also places the earliest reference in the "15th century," some four hundred years before Quinion's 1807 reference that appears to change the meaning of a term used in reference to a centuries-old practice. If anything, Green Cardamom, Quinion's far later reference appears to be a red herring itself! The explanation written into the NCIS script is the most eloquently-worded explanation of a centuries-old expression, used in both Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, as well as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Final Problem. As such, the excellently-worded NCIS explanation stands. Clepsydrae (talk) 17:31, 27 December 2015 (UTC)
TV shows are inadmissible sources for any scientific claims, per wikipedia rules. Period. Unless the infor is about the show itself. If you claim they did good research, surely you can find the sources they used, if the sources were other than hearsay. - üser:Altenmann >t 18:22, 27 December 2015 (UTC)
The TV show is NOT the reference for the origin of the story, period. Please stop this wrong conclusion of yours and Green Cardamon and LOOK at the other references. The other references are the substantiation, not the TV show. The explanation given on NCIS is merely the best wording of the origin to date, and accurately reflects the purpose of the red herring in training hunting dogs to reject false positives, a practice which continues to this day in the training of modern police and military working dogs. Well-references background, amplifying, and illuminating is PRECISELY why Wikipedia was created and has grown to such great heights today. Reverted! Clepsydrae (talk) 19:02, 27 December 2015 (UTC)
  • It is Original Research, specifically WP:SYN. "Do not combine material from multiple sources to reach or imply a conclusion not explicitly stated by any of the sources. Similarly, do not combine different parts of one source to reach or imply a conclusion not explicitly stated by the source." -- GreenC 19:12, 27 December 2015 (UTC)
  • If you say so, you don't need the NCIS show here at all. However... police don training does not mention any herrings. not about herrings either. is a website of unknown authority and even unknown authorsip. I cannot verify the date you claim from Merriam-Webster, because the webpage you footnoted says nothing of the kind. In summary, your claim that NCIS has the best wording is not substantiated. - üser:Altenmann >t 19:21, 27 December 2015 (UTC)
I don't know about any sources, but it almost seems as though this whole thing is recursive - that is it seems the source of the term is itself a red herring (?) Brettpeirce (talk) 16:34, 15 January 2016 (UTC)

Myth Buster[edit]

In response to the alleged MythBusters so-called "myth being classified as "Busted,"" a good hound is trained to ignore red herrings, or what is commonly called a slick trail that leads to nothing, but the dog is treeing as if it has caught the game up an empty tree. So in training, you could drag a raccoon or bear pelt to the end of the line, and in the middle redirect with a red hearing or deer or other non game animal hyde, and scold the hound for changing scent. So one good dog does not bust the myth. There is another term commonly used in judicial opinions, "that hound hunts." So MythBuster is busted for laying a red herring themselves, an inaccurate claim.-- — Preceding unsigned comment added by Homesculptor (talkcontribs) 01:11, 25 July 2015

I concur. In practice, both English hound dogs and modern working police and military dogs are taught to reject false positives. The NCIS description of the old world practice describes the type of false positive rejection training done today, as well. Clepsydrae (talk) 18:04, 27 December 2015 (UTC)
I concur in the sense that they did not bust a historical claim. We are not sure how well the dogs were trained in the long gone past or how well all dogs are/were trained. Unfortunately we cannot add our own critique of MBusters into wikipedia. Any publications? - üser:Altenmann >t 19:10, 27 December 2015 (UTC)

Convict origin[edit]

Removed " An alternate etymology points to escaping convicts who used the pungent fish to throw off hounds in pursuit.[1]" Per this article, this is a false etymology. While it may be good to include false etymologies and note them as such, this source is unreliable. From the author's preface in the 4th edition: "Perhaps I have erred in devoting too much space to fascinating but speculative stories about word origins, but I don’t think so, for the wildest of theories often turn out to be correct ones. In any case, while no good tale here is omitted merely because it isn’t 100 percent true, I’ve tried to at the very least include as many plausible theories about the origins of these words as possible." (talk) 19:50, 20 October 2015 (UTC)

I agree that only etymologies with reasonable rationale must be listed. I myself can invent a handful of such. Staszek Lem (talk) 19:59, 20 October 2015 (UTC)

Facts on File is usually considered a reliable source and Robert Hendrickson has written many word origin books over the years. While it would make the article more tidy to remove the weaker theories, the problem is what if Hendrickson is right? Our article does not assert that one etymology is absolutely right, only that one is the most likely. There are prevailing opinions .. until new evidence emerges. It's a case of multiple POVs. I'll reword as it's really a variation of the story about dogs. -- GreenC 21:50, 20 October 2015 (UTC)


  1. ^ Hendrickson, R. (2000). The facts on file encyclopedia of word and phrase origins. United States: Checkmark.

Typos in subtitle[edit]

Please fix. Wesko (talk) 22:24, 10 October 2018 (UTC)

If I understand what you're referring to, that's called a "short description", not a "subtitle", and it's hosted on Wikidata. I've emended it there. Deor (talk) 22:36, 10 October 2018 (UTC)