Definitions

from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition

  • n. A smoked herring having a reddish color.
  • n. Something that draws attention away from the central issue.

from Wiktionary, Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License

  • n. A smoke-cured and salt-brined herring strong enough to turn the flesh red; a type of kipper.
  • n. A clue or information that is or is intended to be misleading, that diverts attention from a question.

from the GNU version of the Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • adj. the common herring dried and smoked.

from WordNet 3.0 Copyright 2006 by Princeton University. All rights reserved.

  • n. a first draft of a prospectus; must be clearly marked to indicate that parts may be changed in the final prospectus
  • n. a dried and smoked herring having a reddish color
  • n. any diversion intended to distract attention from the main issue

Etymologies

From its use to distract hunting dogs from the trail.
(American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition)
Until 2008, the accepted etymology of the idiom was that red herring were used to train dogs to track scents. This has proven to be a false etymology. (Wiktionary)

Examples

  • They were the most tireless old bores you ever struck, red herring worshippers to a man, asking nothing from me beyond an occasional nod and an instruction to my babu to make a note of that point.

    Flashman and the Mountain of Light

  • ‘Well, so then I was with the Grand Duke,’ explained Leo, drawing a red herring across this painful reflection, ‘and trying to get him to let my wife leave San Juan with us the next day; and Mr Cockrill and Mr Cecil appeared and told us what had happened up on the tower.

    Tour de Force

  • The Mailman's time lag is a very real thing, not a red herring at all.

    True Names

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