On red herrings.

Events have been confluencing on me lately.  I am working my way through the oeuvre of Agatha Christie, from The Mysterious Affair at Styles to Postern of Fate (which, for those keeping score, was published before Curtain and Sleeping Murder, but was written after) on ipod, and reading Agatha Christie’s autobiography as counterpoint.  (This, by the way, is subway and before-bed-reading activity, some part of the day needs to not be about work) Separately, and perhaps growing out of my love for Blackadder I am keeping track of references made to the “pink” or “red parts of the map” with regards to the British Empire.  Christie uses the phrase on page 84 of the 1993 Harper Collins addition of An Autobiography:

The Boer War, I suppose, was the last of what one might describe as the ‘old wars’, the wars that did not really affect one’s country or life.  They were heroic story-book affairs, fought by brave soldiers and gallant young men.  They were killed, if killed, gloriously in battle.  More often they came home suitably decorated with medals for gallant feats performed on the field.  They were tied up with the outposts of Empire, the poems of Kipling, and with the bits of England that were pink on the map.  It seems strange today to think that people – girls in particular – went around handing out white feathers to young men whom they considered were backward in doing their duty by dying for their country.

This foreshadows Christie’s experiences as a nurse during WWI, and also her subsequent disaffection with the army in the person of her first husband, Archie Christie, whom she divorced after discovering his longstanding infidelity.  Christie’s famous (famous enough to be featured in Dr. Who) disappearance is speculated to have been a consequence of Archie’s betrayal, although Christie herself never explained it.

But as to confluences, Christie’s off-the-cuff allusion to “the bits of England that were pink on the map” seems to indicate that the phrase was in common use.  The OED dates the first uses of pink and red in this way to 1898 and 1891 respectively, but as these references are made by the Royal Geographical Society and Self Culture magazine, it seems that by the late 19th century, pinky/red was already the accepted colour for “England” (a la Seely’s Expansion of England).

The OED, one of my favourite reference works defines red herring as

A clue or piece of information which is or is intended to be misleading, or is a distraction from the real question.

and this little investigation is certainly a distraction from the real question of international humanitarianism and the Irish famine, but I would still like to know.

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