This phrase refers to a person or an object that does not belong to a definite class or category. The original meaning, now obsolete, was that such a person or object was unfit for any purpose.
I heard my parents use this phrase in its obsolete sense, but it was worded as, “neither fish, nor fowl, nor good red herring.” I think we can assume that a bird is ‘flesh’ so there is no difference in meaning between the two versions.
The more interesting aspect of the phrase is that it became shortened to “red herring,” which describes something deliberately misleading. Red herrings are actually salted herrings that turn a reddish colour during the smoking process. Though there is no apparent logic for the association, today they are synonymous with the deliberate false trails so often used by writers of mysteries or thrillers.
The term was included in John Heywood’s 1546 glossary, A dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the prouerbes in the Englishe tongue.
How did we come to associate actual herrings to the figurative “throwing off the scent” meaning? There are two theories. One has it that the meaning derives from the practice of using the oily, smelly herrings to lay false trails for hunting dogs. This practice is documented from the late 1600s and described in Nicholas Cox’s The Sportsman’s Dictionary: Or The Gentleman’s Companion, 1686. This use of red herrings was a training exercise, intended to put the hounds on the scent. Since the idea of dogs tracking herring is absurd, the training exercise could be termed a deliberate deceit.
The second theory is that the meaning derives from a trick played by the wealthy English clergyman Jasper Mayne, who died in 1672 and, in his will, left a servant “Somewhat that would make him Drink after his Death,” which turned out to be a salted herring. Well, yes, that would make me drink, too!
The phrase was in use in the USA by the mid-1800s, and is found in The New York Times, in May 1864.
I enjoy red herrings in murder mysteries, but definitely not in the flesh. Or should that be “not in the fish”?