A red herring is something which is used to mislead someone or divert their attention from the real issue.
Salted herrings turn red during the smoking process but why have they been used to denote a campaign of deliberate deceit?
As usual, there are a couple of theories. The first is that it relates to the 17th century practice of laying down oily and smelly herrings to send packs of hunting dogs after them. Nicholas Cox in his Sportsman’s Dictionary of 1686 describes the ruse, “The trailing or dragging of a dead Cat, or Fox, (and in case of necessity a Red-Herring) three or four miles… and then laying the Dogs on the scent”. It is probable that, absent any organised hunting saboteur movement, this practice was used as a training device to improve the ability of the hounds to follow the requisite trail rather than to confuse or mislead them.
A more likely explanation can be found in the delightful tale of the English clergyman, John Mayne. Mayne died in 1672 and in his will left a large sum to assist in the rebuilding of St Paul’s cathedral and to assist the poor and indigent of his parishes in Cassington and Pyrton. He also left for his servant in a trunk something which he described as “Somewhat that would make him Drink after his Death”. Imagine the servant’s surprise and disappointment when the trunk was opened to reveal its contents – a batch of salted herring. A report of the incident in Jacob’s Poetical Register of 1719 calls the ruse a red herring so we can see that the association of the salted fish with deceit had been established by the eighteenth century. I suspect this is the real origin.
Whatever the origin, the phrase had become well established by the nineteenth century as a term for deceit and is regularly used in this context today.
Sowing Your Wild Oats
This phrase is used in the context of foolish conduct, often with the connotation of reckless sexual activity on the part of young (generally unmarried) men.
In England wild oats was a term ascribed to Avena fatua which looked like a cereal oat but was in fact a pernicious weed with no domestic value. Once established it was difficult to eradicate. It is easy to see how the phrase could be used to signify reckless behaviour – the youth was sowing seeds which gave rise to plants with no worth rather than a good crop of wheat. The phrase has a long history and was used by the Roman “comedian” Plautus as far back as 194 BCE in Act IV of his play Trinnumus, “Besides that, when elsewhere the harvest of wheat is most abundant, there it comes up less by one-fourth than what you have sowed. There, methinks, it were a proper place for men to sow their wild oats, where they would not spring up”. Probably, given that originality is one of the few virtues that Plautus cannot be accused of, it dates back far earlier than that.
Avena fatua was also used as a traditional herbal remedy to improve sex drive – the ancient equivalent of Viagra – although there is little evidence that it worked. However, the phrase wild oats in this context could be seen as denoting strong sexual impulses.
The phrase is rarely used in the singular and in the 16th and 17th centuries dissolute young men were known as wild oats.
So now we know!