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

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

Idioms are interesting devices that add colour to language, although they can make English hard to learn. An idiom is a word or phrase which 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 colour. If I say that something is a fine kettle of fish, I'm 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 which are completely red have often been coloured artificially to shorten the smoking time.
This is a split, gutted and smoked kipper, which is a type of herring. Kippers which are completely red have often been coloured artificially to shorten the smoking time. | Source

The Red Herring - 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 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 colour.

Freshly caught Atlantic herring
Freshly caught Atlantic herring | Source

The Red Herring - 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. The red herring alters a person's line of thought and prevents them from noticing or considering the real situation. It may occur naturally or be accidental. It may also 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.

The Red Herring - A Logical Fallacy and Examples

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 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, while the other five are 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 part of the document to be printed in red.

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

Red Herrings and 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 Gentlemen'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 Play Books website and is available as a free download for Android and iOS devices. 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.

There have been some interesting claims related 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. | Source

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, some people use a fish kettle to poach or steam fish.

A fish kettle is a long and oval container made of metal. 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.

A copper fish or ham kettle from 1845
A copper fish or ham kettle from 1845 | Source

Cooking 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 of 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 would 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.

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.

I hate coffee, but tea is a different kettle of fish. It tastes much better to me.

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. | Source

Origin of the Kettle of Fish 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's thought 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. The mess may have developed 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 and the Future

English is an interesting and evolving language. The study of idioms and their origin is a study of our history. Even today, new idioms are being created. They will almost certainly be studied by the historians of the future as they investigate our lives. It's an interesting thought.

© 2015 Linda Crampton

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Comments 74 comments

FlourishAnyway profile image

FlourishAnyway 20 months ago from USA

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


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 20 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

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


grand old lady profile image

grand old lady 20 months ago from Philippines

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


Rakim Cheeks profile image

Rakim Cheeks 20 months ago

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


poetryman6969 profile image

poetryman6969 20 months ago

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?


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 20 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

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


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 20 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

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


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 20 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

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.


billybuc profile image

billybuc 20 months ago from Olympia, WA

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


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 20 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

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


Larry Rankin profile image

Larry Rankin 20 months ago from Oklahoma

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

Great read!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 20 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

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


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 20 months ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

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).


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 20 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you for the interesting comment, alancaster149.


CatherineGiordano profile image

CatherineGiordano 20 months ago from Orlando Florida

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!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 20 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

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!


AudreyHowitt profile image

AudreyHowitt 20 months ago from California

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


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 20 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thanks, Audrey. I appreciate your comment!


Rakim Cheeks profile image

Rakim Cheeks 20 months ago

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


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 20 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

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!


Mel Carriere profile image

Mel Carriere 20 months ago from San Diego California

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!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 20 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

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


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 20 months ago from Other Side of the Sun

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


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 20 months ago from East Coast, United States

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)


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 20 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

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


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 20 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

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.


bdegiulio profile image

bdegiulio 20 months ago from Massachusetts

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


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 20 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much, Bill.


torrilynn profile image

torrilynn 20 months ago

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


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 20 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you, torrilynn. I appreciate your comment.


drbj profile image

drbj 20 months ago from south Florida

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.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 20 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

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


melissae1963 profile image

melissae1963 20 months ago from Tennessee, United States

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


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 20 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much for the kind comment, melissae1963.


Faith Reaper profile image

Faith Reaper 19 months ago from southern USA

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


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 19 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

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.


Suzanne Day profile image

Suzanne Day 19 months ago from Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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!


Nadine May profile image

Nadine May 19 months ago from Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa

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.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 19 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

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


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 19 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

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


Besarien profile image

Besarien 19 months ago

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


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 19 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you, Besarien. I love idioms, too!


Mandaley 19 months ago

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!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 19 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

I agree, Mandaley! Thanks for the comment.


Thelma Alberts profile image

Thelma Alberts 19 months ago from Germany

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


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 19 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you, Thelma. I appreciate your visit.


Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 19 months ago from England

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


Lisa HW profile image

Lisa HW 19 months ago from Massachusetts

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


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 19 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

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


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 19 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

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


Vellur profile image

Vellur 19 months ago from Dubai

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


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 19 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

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


PAINTDRIPS profile image

PAINTDRIPS 19 months ago from Fresno CA

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


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 19 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much for the comment, PAINTDRIPS!


Molly Layton profile image

Molly Layton 19 months ago from Alberta

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


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 19 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

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


Akriti Mattu profile image

Akriti Mattu 18 months ago from Shimla, India

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


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 18 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you, Akriti. I appreciate your comment.


aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 18 months ago from Stillwater, OK

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.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 18 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you for the visit and the comment, Deb.


firstcookbooklady profile image

firstcookbooklady 15 months ago from Minnesota

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


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 15 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thanks for the amusing comment, firstcookbooklady!


Au fait profile image

Au fait 14 months ago from North Texas

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.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 14 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

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


PegCole17 profile image

PegCole17 14 months ago from Dallas, Texas

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.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 14 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

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


Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

Wesman Todd Shaw 10 months ago from Kaufman, Texas

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.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 10 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

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.


aesta1 profile image

aesta1 8 months ago from Ontario, Canada

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


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

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


Greensleeves Hubs profile image

Greensleeves Hubs 8 months ago from Essex, UK

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


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

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.


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 7 months ago from Houston, Texas

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.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 7 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

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.

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