Final Word

Nkandla’s red herrings are confusing

Red herring.jpg

The saga surrounding President Jacob Zuma’s Nkandla home has become very confusing and with plenty of red herrings all over the place, it is confounding newshounds and commentators alike.

Confuse is a Middle English word, originally meaning ‘rout’ or ‘bring to ruin’. It arrived in English in the late 13th century from the Old French 11th century word confusion to denote ‘disorder’ and ‘shame’.

The French, in turn, got the word from the Latin word confusionem and its nominative confusion for a ‘mingling, mixing or blending’. The noun in Latin was confudere for ‘pour together’, which also gave us ‘confound’ (also from the late 13th century) for ‘to confuse’ or ‘putting to shame’ as a figure of speech for ‘mental overthrow’ or creating ‘mental perplexity’.

It might be just coincidence, but nevertheless leaves much room for speculation, that the name of the most famous of all Chinese philosophers, Kong Fuzi (in Chinese meaning ‘Master Kong’) were Latinised in the 16th century by Jesuit missionaries in China to Confucius. Maybe they were just confounded by his teachings.

Red herrings

In the case of Nkandla something other than wisdom seems to be at play – if you look at its proliferation of investigations and reports, and with ‘new’ information, angles and possible guilty parties appearing on the scene almost every second week in the drama that has been drawing out for at least two years,

Newshounds chasing the Nkandla story and political hunters attempting to get the president into their sights are constantly confounded by what seems to be a proliferation of the proverbial red herrings.

To pin down the origin of the ‘red herring’ proverb with absolute certainty turns out to be a pretty elusive target in itself.

A herring in the physical sense of the word, is a fish (usually a kipper) strongly cured in brine and/or heavily smoked to preserve it, which accounts for the redness..

One theory has it that the expression originated from a training technique used for young hunting dogs – for which there are also more than one version. The most popular being that the smelly herring was dragged along a trail to teach the hounds to follow a scent before the skill was transferred to following the scent of a fox or badger.

Another explanation claims that it comes from a technique used by escaping prisoners, who used the pungent fish to throw off the dogs of their pursuers.

At least some etymologists claim that the term was invented in 1807 by English polemicist William Cobbett who related a story of how he once used a kipper to confuse hounds chasing a hare.

Others, however, claim that the origin lies with the poet Walter of Bibbesworth in the mid-13th century who wrote in his poem The Treatise: "He eteþ no ffyssh But heryng red."

The use of herring to throw off pursuing hounds was at least once subjected to a test. It happened in episode 148 of the popular TV series MythBusters. The hound used in the test stopped to eat the fish and lost the fugitive's scent temporarily, but eventually backtracked and located his target – resulting in the myth being classified as ‘busted!’.

It might not be possible to put the competing claims of etymologists about the origin of the figurative use of the term to the test, but what remains indisputable is that at least since the mid-19th century, mystery writers, readers, and critics have been using the ‘red herring’ term to describe the technique of throwing readers off-course in the ‘whodunits’.

Over time it was also adopted to describe the introduction of misleading information in situations to either draw attention away from the real facts or distract attention from a sticky issue.

Final word

Unpacking these terms while considering what is happening around what has become known as the ‘Nkandla affair’ or ‘Nkandla gate’, there came to mind a quote from my favourite 20th-century  American author, Henry Miller: “Confusion is a word we have invented for an order which is not yet understood.”

by Piet Coetzer

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