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Examples...

Q: Why is the sky blue?
A: Because God made it that way.

(A kid to their parent)
Q: Why do I have to clean my room?
A: Because I said so.

What is it called when someone answers a question this way? I've said "That's not an answer, that's a 'cop-out'" but that's not right.

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11  
You forgot to add the Bill Clinton example: "it depends on what your definition of is is". –  LarsTech Nov 28 '11 at 3:08
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Also sometimes referred to as skirting the issue –  Autoresponder Nov 28 '11 at 5:51
    
@BZink: You should wait a little longer to see if there is a better answer. I have fav'ed this question, too. –  Kris Nov 28 '11 at 12:25
3  
Non-answer is widely used as well. –  Jon Purdy Nov 28 '11 at 17:30
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If you want to focus the answers you might want to describe what you are after even further; the examples have similarities, but they also have differences. Try to put it into words or find more examples. –  Unreason Dec 2 '11 at 10:11

16 Answers 16

up vote 36 down vote accepted

I would personally call that being evasive.

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2  
+1 Looks like you beat me to it by 30 seconds :-) –  Matthew Strawbridge Nov 27 '11 at 22:26

You can also try:

  • Circumlocution

  • Circumbendibus

  • Periphrasis

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45  
I'd like to see someone's face after you say to them "that's not an answer; that's circumbendibus" :) –  Daniel Nov 28 '11 at 0:50
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Improvement: "That's not an answer--that, sir, is circumbendibusical!" –  David Rivers Nov 28 '11 at 10:46
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@DavidRivers You might want to throw in a "Indeed" or "Forsooth" somewhere for the added effect. –  Flaw Nov 28 '11 at 12:10
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Circumbendibus rather sounds like a Harry Potter spell! –  Mehper C. Palavuzlar Dec 1 '11 at 21:52
    
@MehperC.Palavuzlar "Circumbendibus!" The Circumlocution Charm - Effect: Dodges an uncomfortable question. –  Joe Z. Feb 1 '13 at 3:17

When you do this you're dodging the question.

This may happen when the responder either doesn't know the answer and wants to avoid embarrassment, or when the responder is being interrogated or questioned in debate, and wants to avoid giving a direct response.

Similarly, from a comment, this is sometimes called "ducking the question" (h/t Scott).

Dodging the question is a form of deflection:

Etymology: 17th Century: from Latin dēflectere, from flectere to bend.

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1  
Or ducking the question. –  Scott Feb 2 '13 at 5:51
    
Just beefed up your (best) answer with a reference per the bounty suggestion. –  Callithumpian Feb 3 '13 at 18:44
    
Bill, thanks for the contribution. I hope you don't mind that I've edited your edit. –  Monica Cellio Feb 4 '13 at 15:21

For me, fob is a good word here, as in:

I fobbed her off with a circumbendibus.

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Pretty archaic to use fob as a verb though. –  mattacular Jan 30 '13 at 5:48
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@mattacular Fob off is not archaic at all. –  coleopterist Jan 31 '13 at 4:28
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I think this is far more appropriate than the two top-rated answers so far. Being evasive, or dodging the question both tend to imply failing to give an answer at all. But if you fob someone off, you definitely give them something - in OP's case, definitely some kind of "answer", even if it's not the full/true/proper one. –  FumbleFingers Jan 31 '13 at 17:06
    
In the United States it definitely is... Can't speak on UK –  mattacular Feb 2 '13 at 12:13
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fob off is in common usage in British English. –  Pitarou Feb 3 '13 at 6:30

Consider prevaricate

to speak falsely or misleadingly; deliberately misstate or create an incorrect impression; lie.

or equivocate

to use ambiguous or unclear expressions, usually to avoid commitment or in order to mislead; prevaricate or hedge

Note, though, that both are usually used in contexts when the speakers wishes to actively mislead or avoid committing to an answer, rather than just avoiding the need to answer altogether.

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Prevaricate is the correct word, in my opinion. def: to deviate from the truth –  user61925 Jan 10 at 19:51

The best answers above seem to be evade and equivocate, because both are general enough not to imply being deceitful or trickorius.

evade
verb \i-ˈvād, ē-\ evad·ed evad·ing
intransitive verb 1 : to slip away 2 : to take refuge in escape or avoidance
transitive verb 1 : to elude by dexterity or stratagem
2 a : to avoid facing up to b : to avoid the performance of : dodge, circumvent; especially : to fail to pay (taxes) c : to avoid answering directly : turn aside
3 : to be elusive to : baffle

equiv·o·cate
intransitive verb \i-ˈkwi-və-ˌkāt\ equiv·o·cat·ed equiv·o·cat·ing
1 : to use equivocal language especially with intent to deceive
2 : to avoid committing oneself in what one says

equivocal
adjective \i-ˈkwi-və-kəl\
1 a : subject to two or more interpretations and usually used to mislead or confuse b : uncertain as an indication or sign
2 a : of uncertain nature or classification b : of uncertain disposition toward a person or thing : undecided c : of doubtful advantage, genuineness, or moral rectitude

(Less formal, but perhaps more precise could be dodge, which is often used in the very example of a question being asked.)

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These might fall under ignoratio elenchi or red herring.

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"Communism was just a red herring." Clue –  livresque Feb 4 '13 at 5:36

tergiversate

to be deliberately ambiguous or unclear in order to mislead or withhold information

Wordnik

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Interesting word, but a rare one. –  J.R. Feb 1 '13 at 2:38
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@J.R.: True, though it was Dictionary.com's 2011 Word of the Year. –  Callithumpian Feb 1 '13 at 2:43
    
Usually tergiversate is employed when someone wants to delay the answer. The question here is related to situations in which one wants to avoid the answer. Subtle difference. –  schaiba Feb 2 '13 at 13:55

Neither "dodgy" nor "evasive" can capture instances where the generic answer is offered in jest. When humor is intended, an anti-joke is being cracked. Examples of anti-jokes:

What's worse than finding a worm in your apple? The Holocaust

Why did the boy drop his ice cream? Because he was hit by a bus.

Why is the sky blue? Because God made it that way.

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In the world of NLP these types of answers are usually referred to as distortions.

This definition of distorted is based on world renowned linguist Noam Chomsky’s Transformational Generative Grammar.

The examples given are surface structures of distortion called complex equivalence, as referenced in Educational Psychology Casework: A Practice Guide by Rick Beaver.

So for me these answers are distorted.

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I would use indirect or evade.

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This answer needs an explanation of why it is correct, including reference citations if applicable. –  MετάEd Feb 2 '13 at 13:29
    
An indirect question is a completely different construct. Do you mean misdirection? –  livresque Feb 4 '13 at 5:39

Answer by fiat.

To directly respond to the Original Post: you want to avoid questions that can only be answered by fiat.

This wording is supported by several examples of "(noun) by fiat" or "(verb) by fiat", meaning justified by authority or arbitrary order, as opposed to logic or morality.

You get an all-powerful magical creator with attributes that defy basic logic by fiat. We get... a rock. -Aspie, whywontgodhealamputees.com

Obama’s bombshell amnesty-by-fiat is a subversion of straightforward immigration law. -Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post

Applying a different rule may result in a different result, but both rules are right by fiat, because they define what they purport to represent. - G. Scott Acton, University of California, San Francisco

Measurements can be either (a) made when confirmed empirical theories may be used to support their existence; or (b) made by fiat, based on arbitrary definition. -Ahmed Riahi Belkaoui, Accounting Theory

While the original post is looking for one word, and @Village's bounty also looks for the word, brevity has its limits. No single word provided here captures that this answering strategy has a brutish quality lacking in reason or moral force. Any discussion of avoidance should use a multi-word phrase that includes "by fiat".

And in final support of this phrasing, I offer that it is the best damn answer here because I say so.

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Jon Purdy's suggestion of non-answer is one I'd support.

Currently, only Urban dictionary has a definition of it, but it is to an answer what a non-apology apology is to an apology - you're pretending to answer (or apologize) but you aren't really doing so.

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I would call them "economic answers"—as they save the responder time.

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Despite all the great synonyms for "lying", my word of choice is "sidestep". Whether it be a parent who does not really know why the sky is blue but needs to save face with their child, or a politician who does not want to get caught answering a question with a horde of reporters recording their every utterance for posterity, the way out of the jam is to "sidestep" with an answer that is somewhere between vague and flat-out lying.

"sidestep"

transitive verb

1: bypass, evade sidestep a question

2: to move out of the way of : avoid sidestep a blow>

intransitive verb

1: to take a side step

2: to avoid an issue or decision

Examples of SIDESTEP

*"She sidestepped the reporter's question. They're sidestepping the real issue."

First Known Use of SIDESTEP: 1900

Related to SIDESTEP: Synonyms: beat, bypass, dodge, get around, shortcut, circumvent, skirt

definition and examples from Merriam-Webster Online

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Two adjectives come to mind: "glib" and "pat".

"Glib" seems to me to imply a swift and deliberately evasive answer, one that may be even somewhat witty.

"Pat" implies to me that the answer is short, requires no thought to make, and almost could be predicted.

Your first example is more glib than pat, for most people. The second example is pat.

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