Red Herring Meaning: Here’s What It Means and How To Use It?

Wondering what red herring means and how to use it? We’ll tell you. Read on to discover the word red herring’s definition, origin, and more.

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When someone says, “red herring,” you probably think about a dried, smoked herring, which is turned bright red by the smoke in the curing process. However, did you know that red herring can also be used as an expression, meaning a false clue? 

A common literary device often used in thrillers and mysteries, a red herring refers to a misleading clue that diverts attention from the truth.

Interested in learning more? We can help. Read on to discover our complete guide on red herring, where you’ll learn where this popular phrase came from and how to properly use it in a sentence. 

What Is the Definition of Red Herring?

First, let’s review the pronunciation: /ˈred ˈher·ɪŋ/

At face value, you may guess that “red herring” refers to some sort of animal, and you wouldn’t be far too far from the truth. While there are no particular species of “red herring,” the term is used in reference to a strong kipper made of fresh fish that has been heavily smoked or cured in a brine. 

This process turns the flesh of the fish from a white color to a reddish color after it is cured or smoked; it produces a rather fishy and pungent aroma. Fresh herring is typically used in this process. Many people believe that this process inspired this well-loved phrase.  

This, however, is not the only definition behind the word “red herring.” We have compiled a list, which we have included below, of a few of the more commonly accepted definitions of the term red herring.

Some frequently-seen definitions are:

  • Primarily used in mystery novels, red herring can be used in reference to anything that may distract the reader from the main issue.
  • Red herring is most widely used in reference to a smoked or dried kipper (typically herring) that has a reddish color to its flesh. 
  • In the world of finance, the term red herring, or more aptly red-herring prospectus, is used to define a preliminary prospectus that is filed with the SEC. In this sense, they are usually in connection with an IPO. 

As you can now clearly see, the term red herring can be correctly defined in a variety of ways. So the next time you use the noun, no matter the context, always be clear and precise to avoid confusing your friends and peers alike.

What Is the Origin of the Term Red Herring?

The etymology of the term red herring is questionable at best and often disputed. Even so, the term red herring can be traced back to around 1420 when describing the smoking and salting of fresh herring. As we now know, this process turns the once white fish a reddish color and, in turn, makes it emit a fishy and pungent smell. 

It was not until the 1800s — almost 200 years after the fact — that the term implied a false clue. The origin of this meaning is thought to have come from the old practice of training hunting dogs by dragging cured herrings across the scent trail of a fox.

What Are the Synonyms and Antonyms for Red Herring?

We have consorted with the folks over at Power Thesaurus and compiled a list of the most commonly used antonyms and synonyms of red herring and listed them below.

Worry not if you have misplaced your thesaurus. We have you covered with this word list:


  • Wild goose chase
  • Subterfuge 
  • Informal fallacy
  • Preliminary prospectus
  • Diversion
  • Smokescreen
  • Salted herring
  • False trail
  • Diversionary tactic
  • Kipper 
  • Logical fallacy 
  • Fool’s errand
  • Red herring prospectus
  • Misleading clue
  • Distraction
  • False clue


  • Materiality
  • Eye opener
  • Revelation
  • Matter of fact
  • Entertainment
  • Openness
  • Original
  • Discouragement
  • Non-fiction

Example Sentences Featuring Red Herring

As we discover more about the noun red herring and its various definitions, we now need to lock this new knowledge down to memory. 

One of the best ways to memorize the definition of any word of the day is by using it in sentences and quizzing yourself with just how many example sentences you can write or verbally communicate in one sitting:

“Please try and pay attention to the main issue and not the red herring.”

“It does not matter if you were to walk into a random house; in this small fishing town, everyone has red herring in their kitchen.”

“It may have been a bit of a red herring, but it was still an issue that we needed to talk about as a team if we are to ever succeed.”


So, what does red herring mean, you ask?

Simply put, the term red herring refers to an idea, subject, or fact that takes people’s attention away from the central point, true matter, issue, or object (a dead herring was often used to confuse the scent of a hunting dog). 

When used in reference to literature, a “red herring” is an extraneous character meant to divert the reader’s attention. In a literal sense, red herring is also a dried, smoked herring, cured by salting and slow smoking to a dark red color. 

Being clear and concise about how you use this term is critical. There is a huge difference between a strip of smoked fish and a critical part of mystery novel lore, so be intentional with your use, and you can liven up any conversation.


  1. RED HERRING | definition | Cambridge Unabridged English Dictionary
  2. 165 Words and Phrases for Red Herring | Power Thesaurus  
  3. Red herring definition and meaning | Collins Unabridged English Dictionary 
  4. Red herring Definition & Meaning | By American Heritage Dictionary