red herring


Definition of red herring

1 : a herring cured by salting and slow smoking to a dark brown color
2 [from the practice of drawing a red herring across a trail to confuse hunting dogs] : something that distracts attention from the real issue

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Did You Know?

Believe it or not, red herring has as much to do with hunting dogs as with brightly colored fish. Here's how: A herring is a soft-finned bony fish. People who like to eat herring have long preserved them by salting and slowly smoking them. That process makes a herring turn red or dark brown - and gives them a very strong smell. Dogs love to sniff such smelly treats, a fact that makes the fish a perfect diversion for anyone trying to distract hunting dogs from the trail of their quarry. The practice of using preserved fish to confuse hunting dogs led to the use of the term red herring for anything that diverts attention from the issue at hand.

Examples of red herring in a Sentence

The argument is a red herring. It actually has nothing to do with the issue. The plot of the mystery was full of red herrings.
Recent Examples on the Web In his plays, naturalism is a red herring, designed to sucker you. New York Times, "Review: In ‘The Height of the Storm,’ Two Stars and an Enigma," 24 Sep. 2019 Chan has designed an elaborate plot, but as the reversals and red herrings proliferate, the deepest mystery remains N himself. David Gordon, New York Times, "A Coke-Snorting Oligarch, a Gangrenous Finger and Other Noir Delights," 20 Mar. 2020 Were the 3-point shooting woes at Rupp Arena a potential fatal flaw or a red herring? Jon Hale, The Courier-Journal, "Unforgettable final week capped coronavirus-shortened Kentucky basketball season," 12 Mar. 2020 The unfollowed leads could, of course, be red herrings, as is true with all leads in any investigation., "Death, lies and uranium: How an Ohio man’s mysterious disappearance in 1984 still haunts family, friends," 17 Mar. 2020 Of course, there’s always the possibility that these are red herrings. Erin Cavoto, Country Living, "'The Masked Singer' Fans Are Convinced the Taco Is 'Last Man Standing' Star Tim Allen," 23 Feb. 2020 Could this photo be a legitimate clue or a red herring? Leah Rocketto, Woman's Day, "Who Is The Turtle On 'The Masked Singer'? Fans Have No Idea," 31 Jan. 2020 Anton Chekhov, the 19th century Russian author, did not believe in red herrings. Matt Ford, The New Republic, "John Bolton Has Run the Trump White House’s Greatest Scam," 28 Jan. 2020 Later clues are often used as red herrings to throw the judges off. Ariana Brockington,, "Leading Theories About Who The Kangaroo Is On The Masked Singer," 12 Feb. 2020

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'red herring.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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First Known Use of red herring

15th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1

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The first known use of red herring was in the 15th century

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Last Updated

24 May 2020

Cite this Entry

“Red herring.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 10 Jul. 2020.

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More Definitions for red herring

red herring


English Language Learners Definition of red herring

: something unimportant that is used to stop people from noticing or thinking about something important

red herring

red her·​ring | \ ˌred-ˈher-iŋ \

Legal Definition of red herring

: a preliminary prospectus (as for the sale of securities) that is not yet approved by the appropriate body (as the Securities and Exchange Commission)

History and Etymology for red herring

red herring something that distracts attention from the main issue, diversion

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