And appropriately, working out the origins of the phrase risks a couple of red herrings cropping up.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, herring was a staple feature of the British diet. In a time before refrigerators, preserving herring involved salting and smoking. As well as giving the fish a pungent odour, the treatment turned herring a ruddy colour.
This red herring – although there technically isn’t a fish called the ‘red herring’ as once it’s cooked, it’s a kipper – played a part in the world of fox hunting. There are two versions of the story.
Either, hunt saboteurs would drag the pongy fish along the ground to confuse the hounds and send them in the wrong direction. Or the hunters themselves would use the fish to train their dogs to pick up a scent. The latter use – and the more likely story – was espoused in the 1807 article written by journalist William Cobbett.
If herring being used to train hunting dogs doesn’t convince you, there is another, but probably apocryphal, etymology. As the wealthy English clergymen Jasper Mayne was dying in 1672, he bequeathed a mysterious trunk to his servant with the promise that the contents will make him want to drink. When the servant opened the trunk, he forlornly realised that it contained nothing more than a salted herring.