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:
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.
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?