Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

This is really common with politicians where they answer a potentially probing question as if they had been asked an entirely other question.

Hypothetical example:

Interviewer: "Is it true that today's budget will put single parents out on the street due to the draconian cuts to childcare supports?"

Politician: "That's a great question, Interviewer. Families are our top priority as the government of country X because we've been talking to citizens of country X and they've told us how important their families are to them. That's why we are boosting the economy of country X to help families by taking the restrictions off business so they can afford to pay the citizens of country X more..."

I know broadly this would be called 'spin' or 'obfuscation' but I'm interested to know if a term exists for this more specifically.

Is there a word for this type of question dodging?

share|improve this question
A comment rather than an answer as (a) it's a phrase not a single word, and (b) it's almost in your question: a Politician's answer (google it with quotes) would be widely understood as what you're meaning. Maybe a "proper/real politician's answer" if it's a particularly fine example from a real politician. –  Chris H Mar 22 '14 at 19:38

6 Answers 6

up vote 6 down vote accepted

To equivocate is "to avoid committing oneself in what one says."

To prevaricate is "to avoid telling the truth by not directly answering a question."

A hedge (or to hedge) is "a calculatedly noncommittal or evasive statement."

To beat around the bush is "to fail or refuse to come to the point in discourse."

All definitions from merriam-webster.com.

share|improve this answer
All of these words are good but none directly hit it. Prevaricate would come the closest. The answerer is not only doing this but capitalising on the opportunity to put their own agenda forward. –  GenericJam Mar 22 '14 at 14:06
@GenericJam: If you wouldn't accept "prevaricate", I don't think you'll find an existing word that would satisfy you. You might have to invent one. My suggestion: howardize. To howardize an interviewer means to fail to answer a question a sufficient number of times to cause him/her to either run out of time or to commit suicide, whichever is the sooner: youtube.com/watch?v=1KHMO14KuJk –  Terpsichore Mar 22 '14 at 14:49
@genericjam How about opportunistic prevarication? I'm coining it personally, but I think it says what you want to say. –  David M Mar 22 '14 at 17:01
@DavidM Yes, something like that would be the closest. I think we'll have to accept 'prevarication' as it is the closest I think anyone will find. –  GenericJam Mar 22 '14 at 17:25
@GenericJam don't accept prevarication - it isn't the right term. It means to mislead through conversational implicature. I gave you the correct term in my answer - use that. –  Hal Mar 22 '14 at 23:15

You have already mentioned dodging. Apparently, this is as concise as you can get without going into motivation and specific techniques, and, even among the academics, there is no better highfalutin word or phrase for it.

Take this paper, for example - The Artful Dodger: Answering the Wrong Question the Right Way from the Harvard School of Business (this is a review version, with reviewers comments included).

The authors of the paper, and the reviewers as well, are very comfortable with using the word dodging to describe the act of responding to a question with an answer to a different question.

What happens when people try to “dodge” a question they would rather not answer by answering a different question? In four online studies using paid participants, we show that listeners can fail to detect dodges when speakers answer similar – but objectively incorrect – questions (the “artful dodge”), a detection failure that went hand-in-hand with a failure to rate dodgers more negatively. We propose that dodges go undetected because listeners’ attention is not usually directed at a dodge detection goal (Is this person answering the question?) but rather towards a social evaluation goal (Do I like this person?). Listeners were not blind to all dodge attempts, however.

Dodging remains the term used throughout the paper and even within the (presumably august) reviewers' remarks.

Other terms are mentioned in the paper, but they are more about theory and motivation. These terms include Gricean conversational implicature, Information Manipulation Theory, Interpersonal Deception Theory, and intentional blindness. But these aren't substitutes for dodging. They only serve to provide context for specific studies on dodging.

If you need to qualify the term in context, then question dodging is a more complete way of saying it.

share|improve this answer
I like the reference. This is pretty much what I am talking about. I suppose this confirms my suspicions that such a word eludes us entirely for the time being. Thanks for your contribution! –  GenericJam Mar 22 '14 at 18:56

Second answer, not related to original answer, so I've re-posted.

I found an NPR piece on exactly this subject. The people who train the politicians to do so, call it a Debate Pivot.

The journalists who ask the questions call it a dodge.

I'm not certain that either is quite the formal term you are looking for. But, the fact that the people who train others on the subject refer to it as a debate pivot would be good enough for me.

share|improve this answer
+1 for the NPR piece, nice find. Exactly captures the problem. Next thing to ponder is why journalists and debate moderators allow them to get away with it without so much as a flinch. –  David Pope Mar 23 '14 at 3:33
@DavidPope A debate moderator is supposedly there to enforce the rules, not debate the candidate. The opposing candidate should be taking them to task, but for fear of looking like a know-it-all, they rarely do. (The public doesn't want to believe that their politicians are smarter than they are . . . no matter what they say or think they want.) Journalists, are typically hamstrung by the fear that if they go too far, no one will ever talk to them again. And, as such, they tend to lay down and play softball. It's easier to make a living by filing stories than by having principles. –  David M Mar 23 '14 at 3:37
Re: journalists I lean more toward the more conspiratorial "they're in on it" than that, but I agree that's almost certainly how it begins for any one journalist. It traces back to apathy on the part of the few people reading the journalist's work (which not coincidentally is the same apathy that allows the politician to stay in power). –  David Pope Mar 23 '14 at 3:41
Excellent find. Bookmarking the link. Thank you! –  Mari-Lou A Mar 23 '14 at 3:42
Thanks for the term and link. That is what I'm talking about for sure. They've essentially co-opted a word to make it sound innocuous. If you're interested in some of the inspiration for this topic here's radio series on spin from CBC (Canada's NPR) - cbc.ca/andthewinneris/2012/06/26/spin-cycles-episode-one –  GenericJam Mar 23 '14 at 16:23

I think two words that are used to describe this sort of interaction are sidestep and circumvent.

to manage to get around especially by ingenuity or stratagem

share|improve this answer

Ignoratio elenchi is the closest thing I could find.

It is the act of using an irrelevant conclusion to answer an argument. The argument may or may not be logical, but is still irrelevant. In other words, answering the question in the way you wish it had been asked.

The example given: You are asked: if x is illegal?

Instead of yes or no, you answer:

It ought to be legal because …

This is Ignoratio elenchi.

I believe you can extend out the definition to be an intentional dodging of the question.

See also the Red Herring, and the Straw Man Argument.

Update on further reading Red Herring may be a better fit. If used in an argument a Red Herring is an ultimately meaningless answer. It can be intentional or unintentional in nature. But, the purpose is to divert away from the argument.

The origin of the term is supposedly the use of a strong smelling fish to divert hounds that are following a scent.

I believe the answer given by the politician is a red herring in that sense. He has given an answer that diverts away from the question he was asked, but might not seem to have been an evasion on its surface.

share|improve this answer
That's a great word but from the link: “ignorance of the nature of refutation.” is the basis of this word. The answerer in this question is fully aware of how to form a logical answer but is choosing to avoid the question and capitalizing on the platform by answering it as they see fit. They are not acting from ignorance but deceit. Thanks for your answer. –  GenericJam Mar 22 '14 at 14:04
@genericjam If you read further, it says that most would translate it as ignoring the issue, not ignorance. –  David M Mar 22 '14 at 14:47
@genericjam See my update. –  David M Mar 22 '14 at 14:54
I would say that 'Red Herring' qualifies as a technique to prevaricate. Whoever is downvoting, please don't, this is partly for discussion purposes. Part of the point of this question is that I don't think this word exists but it would be nice if it did. –  GenericJam Mar 22 '14 at 15:16
@GenericJam I have to admit that I'm not sure what sense you are looking for. Prevarication is definitely the terminology for the double-speak answers of politicians. And, I agree that a Red Herring is a device used to prevaricate. Can you maybe clarify a bit or give a better usage example? –  David M Mar 22 '14 at 16:59

Too bad this is already answered.

The word is tergiversate

share|improve this answer
I like the word but it doesn't entirely encapsulate it either. It is basically being evasive. The 'perfect' word I am looking for says this and that the person is using the opportunity to say whatever they wanted to say anyway. –  GenericJam Mar 22 '14 at 23:15
@GenericJam Then I suggest you use riposte which denotes [[evade, then reply]]. You could write, "He riposted by promulgating his platform." –  Hal Mar 22 '14 at 23:31
Also a great word but in this context I'm looking for something less adversarial. The interviewer may not even realize they are having the wool pulled over their eyes. Many times I find myself yelling at the radio for them to insist that the question be answered but they just move on as if it satisfied their query. –  GenericJam Mar 22 '14 at 23:39
@GenericJam This happens too often to not have its own word (not a metaphor, or a phrase) –  Hal Mar 23 '14 at 0:18
That's my point, really. Someone should invent one. –  GenericJam Mar 23 '14 at 0:20

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.