A Red Herring and a Fine Kettle of Fish: Idioms and History
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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