Red Herring (idiom)

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A symbolic "red herring"
An edible "red herring" (Scottish kippers)

As a red herring ( "red herring ") is in the English language literally a red herring, particulary in Phraseologismus , to throw someone a red herring ' , which literally means "someone a red herring to throw" means mutatis mutandis something like "someone on a to lure the wrong track; Throw smoke candles ”. Recently, the loan translation of Roter Hering can also be found in German literature.


In the real sense of the word , red herring is a smoked salted herring : the fish turns reddish when it is smoked . Literally, he was in English not only in the present-day meaning "trick", but also in the in already 1546 John Heywood Proverbes listed saying "neither fish, nor flesh, nor good red herring" ( " neither fish nor fowl nor kippers" mean to say: “nothing right”; today as good as obsolete, instead today mostly neither fish nor fowl ).

In the literal sense of the word “feint, wrong track”, on the other hand , red herring has only been used since the middle of the 19th century. It is based on the widespread but erroneous notion that hunting dogs lose the weather or even allow themselves to be lured on the wrong track if they are exposed to the strong smell of a salted herring. Although this explanation lacks any scientific or hobbyist basis, it was and is rumored in almost all relevant reference works, including the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary from 1989. In the updated online version of the entry on the Red Herring, however, the OED carries it meanwhile more recent source research, which has shown that the author of this old wives' tale was probably the English pamphlet writer William Cobbett (1763-1835). At least Cobbett is likely to have made a decisive contribution to its popularization; in his Political Register he first described in 1807 and again in 1835 how, as a young poacher, he had lured the sniffer dogs of the rival hunters on the wrong track.


The term Red Herring is used in many contexts. It can be used anywhere where a diversionary maneuver is to be described.


In rhetoric and argumentation theory , the Red Herring is an irrelevant argument with which the opponent or the audience is to be distracted.


In politics , the Red Herring is a propaganda instrument to disinform the enemy or his population . It is also used to discredit an opponent against one's own population. For example, the Marxist-Leninist Partij Nederland was a cover organization of the Dutch secret service BVD in order to discredit the Dutch communist scene. The CIA knew the action under Operation Red Herring . In domestic politics , the Red Herring is used to divert attention from controversial decisions by bringing the unimportant to the fore.

Narrative theory

In narrative theory , the Red Herring is a narrative technique . In short stories as well as in films and adventure games , it is a clue that appears important but has nothing to do with the actual plot.

  • The Red Herring has only recently attracted attention in film studies . He is often confused with the term MacGuffin coined by Alfred Hitchcock . MacGuffin refers to objects or people who turn out to be insignificant for the plot , but still advance it, whereas a Red Herring leads the viewer away from the plot.
  • In adventure games , in which the player finds objects and thus has to solve puzzles, the Red Herring is used in the form of useless objects. For example, in the LucasArts Adventure Maniac Mansion there is a chainsaw with a note that there is no gasoline. Although the game programmers have assured that the chainsaw will never be used in the game, the purpose of the chainsaw has been speculated for a very long time. Ultimately, the associated gasoline can be found in the game Zak McKracken , a later game by the same manufacturer. However, it cannot be used either, as there is no chainsaw there. In the spiritual successor Thimbleweed Park , which was published later, you can later find the chainsaw and gasoline, self- referencing, and you can use it to open a passage to the sewage system, where you can find a sack with red pegs, among other things.


The Red Herring is often quoted in the form of an inside joke, but then without the actual meaning; mostly by showing or mentioning an actual red fish:

  • In The Secret of Monkey Island adventure , a bridge guard disguised as a troll only lets the player pass if he brings him an object that "looks important but is of no use". If you give him a red herring that you find elsewhere in the game, he lets the player pass.
  • Bishop Aringarosa in the novel The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown distracts from the real antagonists from Sir Leigh Teabing. The name Aringarosa is composed of two Italian words, namely "aringa" and "ros (s) a", which in German is literally translated as "red herring".
  • In the computer game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas you find a pierced red herring on a bridge and underneath it the words: “There are no Eastereggs here. Go away. ”This is likely a nod to the aforementioned red herring from The Secret of Monkey Island . This is supported by the scenario of the bridge, as well as the words "Go away", which are addressed in the game by the bridge troll to the player if he tries to give the troll something other than the red herring.
  • In the television series The Penguins from Madagascar , red herrings are often mentioned or even shown, always in different contexts (most often as food).
  • In the Adventure Toonstruck you can “rinse clods” (a kind of game of chance) to win different fish, a red herring serves as a bet.

See also

Individual evidence

  1. This saying bears witness to the dubious reputation of this anything but “good” food, which was produced in huge quantities in the late Middle Ages and was not only one of the most important sources of protein for the lower classes of the population in England, but was also considered a poor food for this very reason. A further complicating factor was that canned fish used to be characterized by a very penetrating taste and smell; contemporary sources suggest that the scent of a salted herring is said to have been enough to drive away hunger, which at least was an advantage during Lent (according to Sue Shephard: Pickled, Potted & Canned. How the preservation of Food changed Civilization Headline Book Publishing, London 2000, p. 110).
  2. Erich Wiedemann: Operation Roter Hering in SPIEGEL Online from December 6, 2004.
  3. ^ Andrew Higgins: In From the Cold: He Was a Communist For Dutch Intelligence. In: The Wall Street Journal . December 3, 2004, accessed on August 14, 2017 (English, freely readable at ).
  4. Example at
  5. Miriam Herbst: Review and outline of the secondary literature on the subject of the classic crime novel. GRIN Verlag, 2007. ISBN 3-638-64775-7 . P. 4.
  6. Anton Fuxjäger: film and television analysis. Introduction to Basic Terminology . Online paper at the University of Vienna .
  7. Margit Peterfy: The Names in Paul Muldoon 's Madoc and Cultural Identity . In: (Eds.) Klaus Martens, Paul Duncan Morris, Arlette Warken: A world of local voices: poetry in English today . Königshausen & Neumann, 2003. ISBN 3-8260-2635-7 . P. 101.
  8. Roter Hering in the Adventure Lexicon of (archive link ( Memento from May 5, 2009 in the Internet Archive )).