Language Corner

Now, how about some distractions?

October 17, 2019

The news has been so grim lately, we thought something less newsy would help readers’ moods. You might call this column a “red herring.” It’s a distraction.

A “red herring” is often viewed as a deception, a way of masking the true nature of something.

So repairs to a dilapidated bridge in Montana are called a “red herring” to prevent construction of a new, controversial bridge. The implied affair of two characters in Succession is “a red herring of an affair, never a reality, and all in the kids’ imagination,” a critic wrote. And President Trump’s demands that the entire House vote on an impeachment investigation is a “red herring,” a law professor says, because “Trump wouldn’t cooperate if the House did vote.” (Darn. Just can’t get away from the news.)

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That kind of “red herring” is “A clue or piece of information which is or is intended to be misleading, or is a distraction from the real question,” the Oxford English Dictionary says.

There are other “red herrings,” including ones not related to fish (or distraction). “Red herring” is a slang term for a soldier, the OED says, though that usage is mostly obsolete. In financial jargon, a “red herring” is “a preliminary prospectus filed by a company with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), usually in connection with the company’s initial public offering (IPO),” Investopedia says. Its name comes from “the bold disclaimer in red on the cover page of the preliminary prospectus,” warning that it is not a final filing.

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But, mostly, “red herring” refers to the distraction/deception method.

Herring are small, schooling fish that are often caught in bulk and pickled, smoked, creamed, or salted. (The British “kippers” are herring that are smoked and butterflied.) A silvery herring that has been smoked or pickled turns reddish-brown and has a strong smell.

Now comes the distraction. Merriam-Webster notes in its entry on “red herring,” “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.” So if you wanted to put a dog off of the scent, you could drag “red herrings” along the path, and the dogs would follow it. But the OED says that is a misinterpretation, and that “red herrings” was the “practice of laying trails for hounds to follow, ultimately to exercise horses which followed the hounds.” Not about the dogs, but the horses.

Michael Quinion, author of the World Wide Words blog, explained the origin of the misinterpretation in a 2008 post. The originator of the expression, Quinion said, was William Cobbett, the editor of a radical journal deriding the British political system: 

“He wrote a story, presumably fictional, in the issue of 14 February 1807 about how as a boy he had used a red herring as a decoy to deflect hounds chasing after a hare. He used the story as a metaphor to decry the press, which had allowed itself to be misled by false information about a supposed defeat of Napoleon; this caused them to take their attention off important domestic matters: ‘It was a mere transitory effect of the political red-herring; for, on the Saturday, the scent became as cold as a stone.’”

The long-assumed derivation of “red herring” as a way to train or distract dogs might be considered a “factoid,” but not the kind you might think.

We mostly think of a “factoid” as a small fact, or, as M-W says, “a briefly stated and usually trivial fact.” But that’s not what Norman Mailer was thinking when he coined the term in 1973. In his book Marilyn, about Marilyn Monroe, he said that factoids were “facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper, creations which are not so much lies as a product to manipulate emotion in the Silent Majority.”

M-W calls that kind of “factoid” “an invented fact believed to be true because it appears in print.” In other words, “fake news.” (Damn. Just can’t escape current events.)

The term caught on. In 1976, the Daily Telegraph wrote of the “current television trend of ‘factoid’ journalism, reporting events which may have happened.” In her 1990 book The Unreal America, the architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable wrote of the “problematic issues of the character and relationship of art and experience to the pseudo-environment and factoid history.”

So what was the Washington Post writer Jonathan Yardley thinking when, in a 1982 review of the book This Was Harlem, he called it “A great lump of a book that never stirs from its obsessive accumulation of factoids”? He didn’t mean false or manipulative facts, but lots of small, relatively meaningless facts.

That usage, too, caught on, and soon overtook the original meaning.

Or did it? Maybe when someone writes “factoid,” they mean pseudo-truth and not small fact? Could “factoid” be a “red herring”?

Back to the (inescapable) news.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.