Neither fish, nor flesh, nor good red herring


When we write market research screeners, to ensure research respondents or participants are qualified for our studies, we sometimes craft questions that include misleading “red herring” answer options. The idea is to include some answer options in the set that do not relate to the research topic. We then randomize the presentation of the answer options for each respondent so that it is harder to pick an answer just to continue on towards a participation incentive. This obscures the topic of the research, helping to ensure respondents/participants are truly qualified.

For example, we may pose a question similar to the following for a textile category survey:

For which of the following purchases are you the primary or secondary decision maker in your household? Please select all that apply.

  • Clothing (continue)
  • Automobiles (red herring)
  • Groceries (red herring)
  • Toilet tissue (red herring)
  • Fast food (red herring)
  • Laundry supplies (red herring)
  • Over-the-counter medicines (red herring)
  • Home textiles (continue)

But where does this expression come from?

For a long time, it was thought that the metaphor had something to do with either fox hunting tradition, food preservation on overseas trips, horse training, and/or prison breakouts.  In 2008, the Oxford English Dictionary clarified the etymology of this expression, as explained in this totally mental article in World Wide Words by Michael Quinion.  I recommend clicking through and reading the full article when you have a few minutes and need a weird break in your day, but here’s an excerpt (and a quick answer):

OED now trace the figurative sense to the radical journalist William Cobbett, whose Weekly Political Register thundered in the years 1803-35 against the English political system he denigrated as the Old Corruption.

He wrote a story, presumably fictional, in the issue of 14 February 1807 about how as a boy he had used a red herring as a decoy to deflect hounds chasing after a hare. He used the story as a metaphor to decry the press, which had allowed itself to be misled by false information about a supposed defeat of Napoleon; this caused them to take their attention off important domestic matters: “It was a mere transitory effect of the political red-herring; for, on the Saturday, the scent became as cold as a stone.”

This story…was enough to get the figurative sense of red herring into the minds of his readers, unfortunately also with the false idea that it came from some real practice of huntsmen.”

Okay, now you know!

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