What is the term for accusing a person of invented wrongdoing in such a way that he cannot respond or even clearly understand the accusations? For example, frequently reversing the definitions of the terminology used, or basing argumentation on hints and roundabout phrasings, metaphors, invented-on-the-fly floating definitions and rules to fit with the accusations.

I think inquisitorial is the most proper term for context in which the result does not depend on the argumentation of one of the sides.

Though, jargonaut was completely unheard by me and incrementally more useful.


12 Answers 12


"Jargonaut" would be a possible neologism.


The art of winning an argument through the use of deliberately confusing language is casuistry. A person who engages in it is a casuist.

  • +1 Thanks, wikipedia casuistry Feb 21, 2011 at 5:46
  • Causistry simply means using examples or "cases" to support an argument. The examples do not have to be terminology, nor are they necessarily invented or confusing. Feb 21, 2011 at 6:01
  • 1
    Casuistry does have its roots in case-based reasoning, but if you look at its usage, it is often pejorative. The implication is that the multiplication of cases may not governed by the needs of the argument but by the needs of the casuist. Feb 21, 2011 at 6:14

Since Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Caroll's Through the Looking Glass says

When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.

I guess you could call them that, although it doesn't exactly cover everything you ask for.


There is no need to make up a new word for this; it has been called equivocation since the 1700s. A person who does this is an equivocator.


Maybe inquisitorial? Some if not all of your description pretty well describes their methods.


A witch hunt or witch trial would be another option.

(This doesn’t specifically relate to the terminology used, but to the general process of accusing someone while leaving them no reasonable way to defend themself. One notorious method was witch ducking: a suspected ‘witch’ would be forcibly submerged in a pond. If she survived, this showed she was in league with the devil, so she would be condemned as a witch. If she drowned, then… well, in that case it didn’t really make much difference whether she was considered innocent or not.)

  • +1 - thanks, I even didn't know about this. I always thought that witches were always burned. Though, I was never expert in this area (I just occasionally saw some movies, read some books and in songs witches were always being burned) Feb 21, 2011 at 12:12

Your description suggests a sophist engaging in sophistry.

  • I don't think of sophistry as a force of persuasion. I don't think I've heard it applied as an interrogative form of intimidation.
    – mfe
    Apr 9, 2011 at 21:30

The term I'd apply is obfuscation.


cunning adjective: 1 having or showing skill in achieving one's ends by deceit or evasion

I would say that this include your idea of inventing (deceit), twisting and changing (evasion) terminology. It is considered a negative adjective unlike inquisitorial, which would be used as a desirable skill for a detective.

  • I'm not sure I agree about what's negative and positive... "cunning" can be used negatively, but it's more commonly used positively to describe clever and ingenious strategy. On the other hand, being "inquisitive" might be good for a detective, but "inquisitorial" means asking repeated questions and possibly being annoying, which is generally negative.
    – psmears
    Feb 21, 2011 at 13:47
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    @psmears: Heh, "asking repeated questions and possibly being annoying" seems to sort of rebound on the (unstated) question here. :-) Feb 21, 2011 at 19:50


not literally, but an easy metaphor for manipulating language for an ends rather than truth.



No, I did not know of this word until I started looking around casuistry, sophistry, and equivocation (all of which I think are the best answers).

  • ...and I had always thought that, despite the euphemistic sound of it, 'equivocation' was a close synonym of 'lying', but the search found that it actually is closer to its 'sound' (which is more like 'waffling').
    – Mitch
    Apr 10, 2011 at 1:17

To me, your description suggests that the described actions are being performed continuously and in the present tense, even as the victim is attempting to react to them. I would therefore suggest:

Moving the goalposts (or shifting the goalposts)

"To change the criterion (goal) of a process or competition while still in progress, in such a way that the new goal offers one side an intentional advantage or disadvantage."

Source: Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moving_the_goalposts



"To take by surprise so as to place in an embarrassing or disadvantageous situation."

Source: The Free Dictionary http://www.thefreedictionary.com/wrong-footing

I would also suggest 'disingenuous' as a description.

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