Red herrings and white elphants

Today I came an interesting site called Phrases, Expressions & Sayings that provides information about the origins of sayings, proverbs and other expressions in English.

Here are a few examples:

Red herring
Red herring
Meaning: A false trail; something that provides a false or misleading clue.

Example: The hounds followed the scent of the red herring rather than that of the fox.

Origin: This phrase refers to smoked herring. In many parts of 19th century Britain such fish have a very strong smell and were usually known, not as kippers, but as red herrings. Because of their smell, they were good at masking other smells. As a result, they could easily cover the scent of a fox. A red herring pulled across the trail could divert the hounds onto a false path. Thus, by analogy, the phrase came to be used to describe any false trail.

According to the OED however, red herrings were used to lay trails for hounds to follow, which enable the hunters to exercise their horses by following the hounds. There is apparently no evidence that false trails were laid using red herrings to distract the hounds. This was a idea that emerged during the 19th century.

White elephant
White elephant
Meaning: Something which is a liability – more trouble than it’s worth.

Example: The London Bridge became a white elephant. The bridge was relocated to Havasu City Arizona, where it now remains as a tourist attraction.

Origin: From the Burmese belief that albino elephants are sacred. They can’t be used for work and they must be lavished with the ultimate amount of care. If the King of Siam wished to get rid of a particular courtier, he gave a gift of a white elephant. The courtier dared not offend the King with a refusal although he was fully aware that the cost of upkeep of such an animal was ruinous.

The OED doesn’t mention whether albino elephants are considered sacred in Burma, but does have the story about the King of Siam giving troublesome or obnoxious courtiers the ‘gift’ of a white elephant which would ruin the recipient due the costs of maintenance.

At coffee mornings, fetes and similar events in the village where I grew up there was often white elephant stall, which had all sorts of odds and ends that people want to get rid of.

Are there any similar expressions in other languages?

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This entry was posted in Language.

3 Responses to Red herrings and white elphants

  1. Christopher says:

    Danish has an expression “skyde en hvid pind” that translates as “to throw a white stick.” It means to give up your unrealistic expectations, as in “throw a white stick at your idea of winning the lottery.” It comes from an old tradition, where when you sold something or gave up something, you would place a white stick on top of it to indicate that you no longer laid claim to it. People also say “skyde en hvid pil,” which means “shoot a white arrow.” That version is a little more exciting, but is a corruption of the original.

  2. b_jonas says:

    I believe that in Hungarian, “fehér elefánt” (white elephant) simply means something very rare, same as the more common “fehér holló” (white raven). Móra Ferenc has a story about a lion of king Vladislas II that cost as much as this white elephant you mentioned, but I don’t think it ever made into a stock phrase.

  3. Sandra says:

    Not sure it’s what you had in mind but concerning phrases with colour adjective+animal, in French we have the following sayings and phrases:
    “voir des éléphants roses” (= to see pink elephants) which refers to hallucination supposedly brought by abuse of alcohol.
    “une oie blanche” (= a white goose) refers to a young woman, naive and unenlightened regarding the birds and the bees.
    “connu comme le loup blanc”(= as well known as the white wolf) means very well known