A Red Herring and a Fine Kettle of Fish: Idioms and History - Owlcation - Education
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A Red Herring and a Fine Kettle of Fish: Idioms and History

Linda Crampton grew up in the UK and loves to visit the country. She is very interested in its natural history, culture, and history.

Buckling are hot-smoked herring that have been gutted and have had their head removed. They are lightly smoked. Herring that are smoked for a long time turn red.

Buckling are hot-smoked herring that have been gutted and have had their head removed. They are lightly smoked. Herring that are smoked for a long time turn red.

Intriguing Idioms

Idioms are intriguing devices that add color to language but can sometimes make English hard to learn. An idiom is a word or phrase that has a meaning different from its literal one. For example, if I say that something is a red herring, I generally don't mean that it's a herring that is red in color. If I say that something is a fine kettle of fish, I'm usually not admiring fish inside a tea kettle. Interestingly, though, when the origin of some idioms is explored, including the two fish idioms that I've just mentioned, a literal or logical explanation is discovered.

This is a split, gutted, and smoked kipper, which is a type of herring. Kippers that are completely red have often been colored artificially to shorten the smoking time.

This is a split, gutted, and smoked kipper, which is a type of herring. Kippers that are completely red have often been colored artificially to shorten the smoking time.

A Smelly Fish

A red herring doesn't exist in nature. A fresh herring has a silvery sheen on its outer surface and white flesh underneath. The fish turns red, orange-red, or red-brown when soaked in brine and then smoked. Both its taste and its smell become much stronger during this process.

A popular type of red herring in present day Britain as well as in the Britain of the past is the kipper. Kippers are traditionally eaten for breakfast or for a special tea (late afternoon meal).

A long salting and smoking period is needed to turn a herring red. One company states that the process requires two to three weeks of soaking in brine followed by two to three weeks of smoking. In order to shorten this lengthy procedure, commercially produced kippers often contain artificial color.

An Idiom and a Literary Device

When used as an idiom, a red herring is something that misleads a person and distracts them from the real issue or problem. It alters a person's line of thought and prevents them from noticing or considering the real situation. The red herring may occur naturally or be accidental.

The creation of a red herring may be a deliberate ploy by a business or politician to turn people's attention away from something that reflects badly on the company or the person or that may be controversial. Some writers deliberately use red herrings in their stories to prevent readers from figuring out the conclusion to a plot before they read it.

Examples of Red Herrings in Literature

Great Expectations

In the book Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, a young man named Pip (the leading character in the story) is told that he has a wealthy benefactor who wishes to remain anonymous and wants to help him become a gentleman. Pip assumes that this benefactor is the rich Miss Havisham, whose house he frequently visited as a boy. This assumption seems logical to the reader as well, but Miss Havisham is actually a "red herring." Pip's real benefactor is an escaped convict whom he once helped as a child.

Five Red Herrings

Five Red Herrings is a mystery written by Dorothy L. Sayers. The leading character is her famous detective Lord Peter Wimsey. The plot concerns the death of an artist. There are six suspects for his killer. One eventually admits his guilt. The other suspects were red herrings.

The Da Vinci Code

A more recent example of a red herring occurs in The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. At first, Bishop Aringarosa appears to be the leading villain in the mystery story. However, we eventually discover that he is a red herring and that the real villain is Sir Leigh Teabing, whose code name is "The Teacher". The name Aringarosa is derived from two Italian words—"aringa," which means herring, and "rossa," which means red.

In finance, a red herring is the preliminary prospectus issued by a company before it sells a new security. It's understood that the information in the document may change. The SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) requires the disclosure stating that the security is not currently for sale to be printed in red.

Foxhounds have an excellent sense of smell and are energetic dogs. They may have contributed to the origin of the red herring idiom.

Foxhounds have an excellent sense of smell and are energetic dogs. They may have contributed to the origin of the red herring idiom.

False Trails

A reddened herring can develop a very pungent smell. At one time, a real red herring was used to lay down a false trail. The Gentleman's Recreation was a popular book about hunting that was first published in 1674 and was written by Nicholas Cox. It can be read on the Google Books website. In his book, Cox says that fox hunters should obtain a dead fox, a dead cat, or if neither of these are available, a red herring. The animal should then be dragged over the countryside for three to four miles to establish a trail for foxhounds and horse riders to follow.

People often assume that the practice suggested by Cox was designed to train foxhounds to follow a scent. Some people say that the goal of the practice was really to exercise the horses, however, or to get the horses used to the excitement of a hunt.

Some interesting claims have been made with respect to red herring trails. One says that in the seventeenth century a red herring was dragged across the ground by escaped convicts to distract the hounds that were hunting for them. Another claims that in the eighteenth and nineteenth century opponents to fox hunts laid down trails with red herrings to distract the foxhounds and allow the fox to escape. There is much debate about whether or not these events actually happened, however.

Red is a traditional colour worn by fox hunters.

Red is a traditional colour worn by fox hunters.

William Cobbett and the Metaphorical Red Herring

William Cobbett was a journalist who lived from 1763 to 1835. At one point in his life, he published a weekly periodical called Cobbett's Weekly Political Register. In the February 14th edition of 1807, Cobbett expressed his frustration with the tendency of his fellow journalists to believe everything that they heard. He reported that as a child he had drawn hounds away from a hunt with a red herring (which is thought to have been a fictional story used to make a point). Cobbett felt that the journalists of the time were just as easily misled and wrote the statement below. The quote refers to a false report that Napoleon had been defeated. This is thought to have been the first time that the term "red herring" was used as an idiom.

Alas! it was a mere transitory effect of the political red-herring; for, оn the Saturday, the scent became as cold as a stone.

— William Cobbett, from the Oxford English Dictionary

The Fish Kettle

Like a red herring, the fish kettle was involved in the creation of an idiom. A kettle was once a different utensil from the one that we use to boil water today. It lacked a spout and was used to cook fish. Even today, however, some people use a fish kettle to poach or steam fish, and the utensil is sold in some stores.

A fish kettle is a long and oval container made of metal, as shown in the illustration and video below. It has a handle on each side and a lid. It often has a removable rack inside. The rack allows a whole fish to be cooked in heated or boiling water or in steam and then easily lifted out of the kettle.

The video below demonstrates how to cook fish in a modern fish kettle.

A Kettle of Fish in Scottish Culture

An interesting custom involving fish kettles was described in a book called A Tour in England and Scotland, in 1785, by an English Gentleman. The book was written by a baron named William Thomson, who was also known as Thomas Newte. It's available on the Google Books site.

Thomson described a social event customarily held by Scottish gentry. People gathered beside a river in a group and ate freshly caught and cooked fish. Tents were erected, creating a party-like atmosphere, and the fish were boiled in kettles over a fire. Today the event might be called a picnic, but at that time it was known as a "kettle of fish."

It is customary for the gentlemen who live near the Tweed to entertain their neighbours and friends with a Fete Champetre, which they call giving ‘a kettle of fish’. Tents or marquees are pitched near the flowery banks of the river ... a fire is kindled, and live salmon thrown into boiling kettles.

— Thomas Newte (William Thomson)

Meaning of a Fine, Pretty, or Different Kettle of Fish

A Fine or Pretty Kettle of Fish

The idiom fine or pretty kettle of fish means a troublesome or awkward situation, as in the following examples.

  • He's got himself into a fine kettle of fish by using four credit cards to make purchases this month.
  • By telling different lies to different people, she's got herself into a pretty kettle of fish.

A Different Kettle of Fish

A different kettle of fish is also a common idiom in some countries. It's used to describe a person or thing that differs in a notable way from another person or thing.

  • My last yoga teacher was very lively and energetic, but my new one is a different kettle of fish. She's always calm in class.

The idiom is also used to describe something that is different from the situation that has just been discussed. In this case, the North American term "a whole new ball game" means the same thing.

  • Writing a novel is one thing. Getting it published is a different kettle of fish.
Like this bear cub, some Scottish people in the eighteenth century caught salmon and ate it during a picnic.

Like this bear cub, some Scottish people in the eighteenth century caught salmon and ate it during a picnic.

Origin of the Idioms

There is evidence for the origin of the red herring idiom, but we have to guess about the origin of the kettle of fish idioms. It has been suggested that "kettle of fish" may have became an idiom describing an awkward or messy situation due to the mess that appeared in a fish kettle as a cooking fish broke into pieces. It may also have developed when the soft parts of the fish were pulled out of the kettle and the bones, skin, head, and other uneaten parts were left behind.

The addition of the adjectives to the idiom probably happened later. By examining literature, researchers conclude that the different kettle of fish idiom likely appeared in the early 1900s, considerably later than the fine or pretty kettle of fish idiom. The term pretty kettle of fish was in use as early as 1742, as shown by the quote below from the book Joseph Andrews written by Henry Fielding.

"Here's a pretty kettle of fish," cries Mrs Tow-wouse, "you have brought upon us! We are like to have a funeral at our own expense."

— Henry Fielding, in Joseph Andrews

Idioms in the Future

Like many other languages, English is evolving over time. The study of idioms and their origin is a study of our history. Idioms frequently arise from situations that were common or important to us at one time. Even today, new ones are being created. They will almost certainly be studied by the historians of the future as they investigate our lives. That's an interesting thought.

References and Resources

The older books mentioned in this article can be read online without charge.

  • Great Expectations, Five Red Herrings, and Joseph Andrews can be read at the Project Gutenberg website.
  • The Gentleman's Recreation and A Tour in England and Scotland, in 1785 can be read at the Google Books site.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary website has a page about red herrings.

The Phrase Finder website has a page that discusses kettle of fish used as an idiom.

© 2015 Linda Crampton

Comments

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 07, 2016:

Hi, Peggy. Yes, English must be hard to learn for people whose first language is different. I admire their determination! Thank you very much for the comment.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on May 07, 2016:

What an interesting hub. It is fascinating how those idioms originated and even now some of it is still speculation as per your kettle of fish example. English for non English speakers must be a hard language to learn given all the different meanings. Your hubs are always informative and fun to read.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 02, 2016:

Thanks for the comment, Alun. You've mentioned a major reason why I love to study word origins. They often give us information about culture in the past.

Greensleeves Hubs from Essex, UK on April 02, 2016:

Always interesting to read about word origins Linda, and I didn't know either of these. It tells us not only something about the ways words and phrases develop, but often - as in these examples - something about the culture at the time when the phrases came into being. Thanks, Alun

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 17, 2016:

How kind, aesta1! Thank you so much for the lovely comment.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on March 17, 2016:

You always include very interesting tidbits of information in your hub. What a joy to read your hubs.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on February 08, 2016:

Thanks for the interesting comment, Wesman! The English language can be confusing, but I think it's interesting, too. I enjoy studying its origins and development.

Wesman Todd Shaw from Kaufman, Texas on February 08, 2016:

So much depth to all the little phrases we use - and it's so easy to forget how confusing it all really is. The English language is so huge and challenging. I guess the upshot is there is unlimited potential there for individuality and creativity.

I always get uncomfortable when I see someone misusing things. I think I'm aware that I surely am misusing some words or phrases somewhere....and someone out there is uncomfortable about it.

Lord save me! I get angry every time someone tells me I'm using a logical fallacy. Instead, I should just study logical fallacies.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 15, 2015:

Thank you very much, Peg. Investigating the English language is always interesting.

Peg Cole from Northeast of Dallas, Texas on October 15, 2015:

A red herring and a fine kettle of fish: finally to know how these phrases came into the language is interesting and helpful. I enjoyed reading the possibilities and stories that went along with their origins. As always, great reading.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 10, 2015:

Thanks for the comment and for sharing the information, Au fait.

C E Clark from North Texas on October 10, 2015:

The red herring is a type of argument that is used in political or legal discourse especially. A fine kettle of fish is used more often by the common population to describe a situation.

Good choices, as both idioms are more common in everyday discussions than most people might think. The red herring is used frequently used in politics and a surprising number of people are shown off track as a result, and often never learn the difference.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 11, 2015:

Thanks for the amusing comment, firstcookbooklady!

Char Milbrett from Minnesota on September 11, 2015:

I'm tempted to write something clever, to add to this, but I got nothing. Thanks for clearing the air on Red Herring!!!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on June 15, 2015:

Thank you for the visit and the comment, Deb.

Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on June 15, 2015:

I never had any idea what a fine kettle of fish was, even though I heard it in the past. Thanks for getting it cleared up for me.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 31, 2015:

Thank you, Akriti. I appreciate your comment.

Akriti Mattu from Shimla, India on May 31, 2015:

Thank you so much for writing such an informational post. i appreciate fellow writers spreading knowledge :)

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 09, 2015:

Thank you very much, Molly. It's nice to meet you.

Molly Layton from Alberta on May 09, 2015:

This is a fascinating hub! The origins of these idioms are very interesting. Thanks for writing this.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 28, 2015:

Thank you very much for the comment, PAINTDRIPS!

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on April 28, 2015:

Incredibly interesting. I love reading these types of history pieces. Thanks for the education.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 27, 2015:

Hi, Vellur. Thanks for visiting and commenting. I'm glad you enjoyed reading the hub.

Nithya Venkat from Dubai on April 27, 2015:

Interesting and informative, learned a lot about "the red herring and a fine kettle of fish. Enjoyed reading.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 26, 2015:

Hi, Lisa. I agree - idioms have to mean something to us before they feel natural! Thanks for the interesting comment.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 26, 2015:

Thanks for the visit and the comment, Nell. I appreciate the vote and the share as well.

Lisa HW from Massachusetts on April 26, 2015:

I do what I can to make sure "fine how-do-you-do" doesn't die. :) Never used "kettle-of-fish" - maybe because even without knowing where it came from, really, I've never found the image it brings up very appealing. Same with "red herring". Words-person that I am, I'm very picky about my idioms and any images that may be associated with them. lol

Nell Rose from England on April 26, 2015:

Hi, well who would have guessed! lol! we still say it sometimes even though its rather outdated now, but its great to see the stories behind the tales, loved it! voted up and shared, nell

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 24, 2015:

Thank you, Thelma. I appreciate your visit.

Thelma Alberts from Germany and Philippines on April 24, 2015:

What an interesting idiom! It is the first time I heard about it. Thanks for educating me.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 23, 2015:

I agree, Mandaley! Thanks for the comment.

Mandaley on April 22, 2015:

The English language is such a beautiful thing. There is always something to learn and the history is fascinating. It can never be boring, that's for sure!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 22, 2015:

Thank you, Besarien. I love idioms, too!

Besarien from South Florida on April 22, 2015:

Great hub! I love idioms. Thanks for explaining two of the fishiest!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 22, 2015:

Thank you very much for the comment, Nadine. I appreciate your visit and the interesting comment about choosing book titles.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 22, 2015:

Hi, Suzanne. Thanks for the comment and the vote. It is a great shame that some companies make such harmful changes to food.

Nadine May from Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa on April 22, 2015:

Wow! That was an amazing job of explaining the origins and meanings of these idioms. We often look for them when we must come up with a book title.

Suzanne Day from Melbourne, Victoria, Australia on April 21, 2015:

An excellent article on fish idioms. I didn't know that red looking herrings/kippers had colouring added to them! No doubt their omega 3 was taken out as well, how low can these manufacturers stoop? Voted useful and UP!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 21, 2015:

Thank you very much for the comment and for sharing an idiom that I've never heard of before, Faith. Thank you for all the votes and shares, too. I always appreciate your kindness! Blessings to you.

Faith Reaper from southern USA on April 21, 2015:

Alicia, what an excellent and interesting hub. I'm sorry this one slipped by me somehow. So glad I popped over here to your side of HP Town. Looks like another HOTD you have here! I love idioms and loved reading about the history of them. I do remember Laurel and Hardy using the one a lot about the Fine Kettle of Fish LOL. I remember commenting one time on a hub about my cat, George, being a pistol, and Annart wanted to know what I meant by that, and so I told her it meant that he is a bit mischievous but not seriously troublesome. At least that has always been my understanding of that idiom and I don't even know from where I came up with that one, probably just growing up over the years hearing others say it. Now that I think about it, I can see how one would want to question the pistol part as it makes no sense if you've never heard the idiom before in the context it is meant.

Stellar hub as always. Up ++++ tweeting, pinning, G+ and sharing

Bless you

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 20, 2015:

Thank you very much for the kind comment, melissae1963.

Melissa Reese Etheridge from Tennessee, United States on April 20, 2015:

What a fun and interesting article. I will definitely have to share this with my students.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 19, 2015:

Thank you very much for the comment and for sharing the information, drbj. I appreciate your visit!

drbj and sherry from south Florida on April 19, 2015:

I enjoyed this immensely, Linda, since I am wont to exploring the meaning of idioms and popular sayings as well. I recall first hearing "a fine kettle of fish," when Oliver Hardy (in films) continually admonished Stan Laurel with that phrase whenever trouble occurred.

Thanks for this memorable treat.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 18, 2015:

Thank you, torrilynn. I appreciate your comment.

torrilynn on April 18, 2015:

interesting read. i love learning new things. thanks for the hub.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 18, 2015:

Thank you very much, Bill.

Bill De Giulio from Massachusetts on April 18, 2015:

Hi Linda. How interesting. I certainly learned something new today. I had no idea as to the origin of these idioms. Great job.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 18, 2015:

Hi, Dolores. I didn't know that Laurel and Hardy used the term "kettle of fish". Thanks for the comment and for sharing the information. Thank you very much for the share and the tweet, too.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 18, 2015:

Hi, Cynthia. Thank you very much for the visit and the comment.

Dolores Monet from East Coast, United States on April 18, 2015:

I love idioms and to learn their origins, even if there are several suspected ones. I had a book years ago called "Heavens to Betsy" that was full of them. I don't know what happened to it, but it was fascinating. I remember watching Laural and Hardy movies and one would say to the other, "well this is a fine kettle of fish." That would so crack me up. (shared and tweeted)

CMHypno from Other Side of the Sun on April 18, 2015:

Who knew there were so many 'kettle of fish' stories? Thanks for all the great information and such an interesting hub

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 17, 2015:

Thank you for the comment and the information, Mel. I'll look for this show. It sounds very interesting.

Mel Carriere from San Diego California on April 17, 2015:

The Englsh language constantly is changing and evolving. Here in the United States we have a program called a way with words that deals with language and idiomatic expressions like this. it comes on Sunday afternoons on National Public Radio. I think you can listen to the podcast of the show at waywordradio.org. Veru interesting I highly recommend it. Great hub!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 16, 2015:

Hi, Rakim. I'm looking forward to reading your hubs. I can't follow you at the moment because there are no hubs for me to read on your profile and I don't know if you will be writing about topics that interest me. I hope you write a hub soon. I'd love to see it!

Rakim Cheeks on April 16, 2015:

Your welcome. If you would, follow me, I'm trying to build my audience on hub pages.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 15, 2015:

Thanks, Audrey. I appreciate your comment!

Audrey Howitt from California on April 15, 2015:

What an interesting hub! I love idioms and always have wondered about how they come into being--you've explained these so well!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 15, 2015:

Thank you very much for the kind comment, the votes and the share, Catherine. I appreciate your visit a great deal. I think you're right about the origin of the term "fishy". The explanation certainly makes sense!

Catherine Giordano from Orlando Florida on April 15, 2015:

You did an amazing job of explaining the origins and meanings of these idioms. Nothing fishy here. I'm guess "smelling fishy" is an idiom for a lie or trick because fish smell bad so we say "smells fishy" or just plain "fishy." I have often heard "red herring" and "kettle of fish", but never understood why those idioms are used. Now I do. Well done. H+ Voted up and +++. Also I just decided what to make for dinner. Fish!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 14, 2015:

Thank you for the interesting comment, alancaster149.

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on April 14, 2015:

Idiom is what colours language. It's what poets use to 'paint' a picture, it's what skalds used to give colour to sagas that praised their paymasters and lifted them to the level of the gods. Kennings are idioms that can be used instead of prosaic nouns or adjectives, 'Sif's gold' to describe hair (Thor's wife Sif had a hairpiece of spun gold made by the dark elves), 'mare's tails' to describe the foaming wave crowns, 'Withering like the gods without Idun's apples' (Loki stole the goddess Idun's apples and the gods began to age without their youth-giving quality).

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 14, 2015:

Thanks, Larry. The explanation for idioms can sometimes be surprising!

Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on April 14, 2015:

Love learning the explanations of idioms. It isn't always what you think.

Great read!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 14, 2015:

Thank you very much, Bill. I always appreciate your visits.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on April 14, 2015:

What a fun literary lesson, Alicia. I enjoyed this greatly.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 14, 2015:

Hi, poetryman. Thanks for the comment and the vote. Thank you for sharing the very interesting image, too! That cat would be interesting to see.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 14, 2015:

Hi, Rakim. Thank you for the visit. I appreciate your kind comment.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 14, 2015:

Thank you very much for the comment, grand old lady. They are interesting idioms to explore!

poetryman6969 on April 14, 2015:

An interesting and entertaining look at some words. Very fishy!

Voted up.

Have you ever seen a cat wearing pajamas in a bird's seat?

Rakim Cheeks on April 14, 2015:

This hub was very interesting! The information was great. And you used outstanding examples. I loved it. Great job

Mona Sabalones Gonzalez from Philippines on April 13, 2015:

Very interesting. I have always heard these idioms but never knew what they meant, much less their origin. Wonderful article.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 13, 2015:

Thank you very much, Flourish. As always, I appreciate your comment and votes!

FlourishAnyway from USA on April 13, 2015:

How interesting, Linda! I enjoyed your explanation and examples. This was a creative twist of a hub! Voted up and more!

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