What does the idiom "red herring" mean?

The phrase red herring is often used in English, but what does this idiom mean? When idioms are used in the right situations, they strengthen communication and enrich the language. You can communicate more effectively by learning the meaning of red herring.

Meaning of "red herring"


The phrase “red herring” is an idiom that is used to describe a situation in which someone or something distracts from the main issue or point. The phrase implies that the distraction is a false or irrelevant lead, and that it is intentional in order to lead someone away from the real issue or the truth. Additionally, the phrase can be used to describe an argument in which someone purposely introduces a false or irrelevant topic in order to change the direction of the conversation.


The phrase “red herring” is believed to have originated in the early 19th century. It is believed to have stemmed from a practice of fishermen that used the strong smell of a particularly smelly kind of herring, known as the red herring, in order to distract hounds that were tracking a scent. This practice was known as “dragging a red herring” and it gave way to the phrase that we know today, “red herring.”


The phrase “red herring” is used to describe a situation in which someone or something is deliberately attempting to distract from the main issue, or to describe an argument in which someone introduces a false or irrelevant topic purposely to refocus the conversation. It is often used in a derogatory fashion and typically implies that the distraction is being used as a tactic to avoid addressing the real issue. The phrase is often used when describing political or legal discussions, as it is often used as a tactic in both fields.

Example Sentences

  • The politician tried to distract from the scandal by bringing up an unrelated issue, but it was obviously just a red herring.
  • The lawyer attempted to introduce a red herring in order to avoid answering the judge's questions.

The meanings of the words in the "red herring" idiom

Idioms with similar meanings in different languages

"Barking up the wrong tree" is an English idiom that means to pursue a mistaken or misguided course of action. In German, the similar idiom is "Auf dem Holzweg sein," which translates to "To be on the wrong track." This idiom emphasizes the idea that when you are pursuing the wrong course of action, you are not going to achieve your desired outcome.


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