A rhyme for the hard of herring…
One of the first ‘expert’ groups to which I was privy was convened in the mid-1980s to consider the sprat fisheries in the North Sea (I wasn’t one of the experts; just a junior learning the ropes).
I remember listening to a few hours of interesting and animated conversation before being asked to write-up the entire discussion.
Unfortunately, no-one had asked me beforehand to act as the meeting’s rapporteur so I hadn’t taken notes and couldn’t recall the detail. I can’t remember how my subsequent text was received by the real experts, but it was a lesson well and truly learned: always take notes juste au cas où!
That all came back to me this week when I read a friend’ s contribution to our workplace newsletter. She had written about the link between a pair of dried-up clupeids in our collection (a herring, Clupea harengus, and a sprat, Sprattus sprattus) and the notorious Edinburgh murderers and body snatchers Burke and Hare.
The link was the anatomist Robert Knox FRCSE who was asked by the ‘Commissioners of British White Herring Fishery’ (sic) in 1836 to examine small pelagic fish caught in the Firth of Forth and who consequently identified a mixed fishery of herring and sprat. Knox was the self-same anatomist that had previously benefitted from Burke and Hare’s murderous nocturnal forays.
The kind of observational anatomy that Knox used to separate the two species can’t have been too far removed from the methods I was taught (and used) in the mid-1980s (‘meristics and morphology’); methods far removed from the modern-day techniques of DNA sequencing and gene mapping.
Here’s the limerick:
Nowadays we have flash apparatus
To discern what the oceans throw at us,
But the anatomist Knox
Just had fish in a box
One herring and one Sprattus sprattus.
(Hint: pronounce it appa-RAH-tuss and not appa-RAY-tuss or it doesn’t work!)
Postscript: ‘White herring’ are fresh herring as opposed to ‘red herring’ that have been cured by smoking. As red herring are highly scented they can be dragged along the ground to lay a false trail to divert a hunting pack of dogs from its prey; hence the idiom ‘a red herring’ popularised by the writer William Cobett.
In a similar vein, hound trailing that originated in the English Lake District uses a rag soaked in a mix of aniseed and paraffin oil to lay a trail for the racing hounds to follow; nevertheless, I can’t see ‘aniseed trail’ catching on as idiomatically as ‘red herring’.