J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, May 28, 2020

“To catch a red herring at last”

Yesterday I shared a use of the phrase “red herring” in a political setting from 1782. Here’s a trail to an even earlier usage.

Lord Carteret, who after 1744 was the second Earl Granville, was active in the British government from 1719 on. He was mostly involved in foreign policy. Through the 1720s and 1730s he was one of prime minister Robert Walpole’s rivals, partly from their convictions and partly from their sheer ambitions.

Lord Carteret was the most influential man in the British government after Walpole’s fall in 1742, but he himself was forced out of his office as Secretary of State two years later.

In 1751 the earl became Lord President of the Privy Council, a high-ranking position with little direct power. He remained in that post until he died in early 1763.

Later that year the British press published “A Dialogue Between the Late Earls of Orford [i.e., Walpole] and Granville,” depicting the two old opponents meeting in the afterlife. This item appeared in the 21-23 June London Chronicle and John Caesar Wilkes’s Weekly Magazine for 27 June. The Beauties of All Magazines reprinted it in July.

A longer version of that dialogue appeared in the June 1763 issue of The Universal Museum and Complete Magazine (volume 2, page 319). That appears to be the original; Frederick M. Keener lists it as such in his English Dialogues of the Dead: A Critical History, an Anthology, and a Check List (1973). Although I’m pretty sure the Universal Museum from 1763 is in the public domain now, Google Books offers only snippet views and no copies are available on HathiTrust.

As someone in this etymological discussion also found, a portion of the dialogue that didn’t make it into the London Chronicle or other sources was:
Lord G. It is right, however, that mankind should pursue it. It is productive of many good effects. The trumpet of fame rouses great minds to great actions.

Lord O. And to many bad ones too. Fame, you know, my Lord, has two trumpets. And though the pursuit of it may be good exercise for the general pack of mankind, and keep them in breath, it seems (to speak in my favourite language of a sportsman) to be only hunting a trail, to catch a red herring at last.
This may be the first print source to take the common, smelly object of a kipper, as used in training a hunting pack, and make it into a metaphor for something that distracts people from what’s really important. And it’s from 1763.

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