I know there is a word for this, e.g. when someone is stealing from their employer, they tell their employer that they have noticed xyz and they think so-and-so is doing it.

It's a very specific word that I've also seen used in the context of politicians accusing their rivals of various dodgy things that the first person was eventually shown to be doing. It's not a word that has broader meaning - frame, for example, does not rely on the accuser's guilt. Lie, divert, manipulate etc are all on the wrong track.

  • 1
    This question is very similar and 'Frame' is one of the answers. Commented Jun 29, 2015 at 19:56
  • 4
    No, it's a very specific word that I've also seen used in the context of politicians accusing their rivals of various dodgy things that the first person was eventually shown to be doing. It's not a word that has broader meaning - frame, for example, does not rely on the accuser's guilt. Lie, divert, manipulate etc are all on the wrong track.
    – Gina
    Commented Jun 29, 2015 at 20:11
  • 1
    Hypocrisy? There's not really a verb for that though.
    – nollidge
    Commented Jun 29, 2015 at 21:30
  • 1
    Misdirection is the term I'd use. It's more generic than the specific case of accusation, hence I'm only leaving as a comment.
    – Keith
    Commented Jun 30, 2015 at 0:16
  • 3
    I find this Chinese idiom interesting: 做賊喊抓賊. It literally means the thief is calling out to catch a thief
    – RexYuan
    Commented Jun 30, 2015 at 7:04

16 Answers 16



From Wikipedia:

Scapegoating (from the verb "to scapegoat") is the practice of singling out any party for unmerited negative treatment or blame as a scapegoat. Scapegoating may be conducted by individuals against individuals (e.g. "he did it, not me!"), individuals against groups (e.g., "I couldn't see anything because of all the tall people"), groups against individuals (e.g., "Jane was the reason our team didn't win"), and groups against groups.

A scapegoat may be an adult, child, sibling, employee, peer, ethnic, political or religious group, or country. A whipping boy, identified patient or "fall guy" are forms of scapegoat.

On many occasions, scapegoating does rely on the accuser's guilt.

  • Often a scapegoat is part of the guilty party that takes all of the blame rather than just their fair share. OTOH, A "red herring" can be anyone. Commented Jul 1, 2015 at 8:44

To frame someone

  1. Informal. to incriminate (an innocent person) through the use of false evidence, information, etc.


  • 1
    It's related, but it's not the same thing. It's one reason to frame someone, but not necessarily the reason. Commented Jun 30, 2015 at 9:30

Wiktionary has

blameshift verb (biblical)

To blame another for one's own wrong-doing. Blameshifting ... pointing the finger at another when trying to save one's skin.

Dictionary.com only gives the noun:

blameshifting noun

the act of transferring responsibility for an error or problem to another; also written blame shifting

  • 1
    Sorry; definitely not biblical. That's an invention of some Blame Shift fans.
    – Hugh
    Commented Jun 30, 2015 at 4:09
  • What does biblical etymology even mean? That the word was coined by someone translating a Christian bible? Why would new words be coined in that context? Commented Jun 30, 2015 at 4:50
  • The concept occurs many times in the Bible, but the phrase does not. For example, when God asks Adam if he ate the forbidden fruit, he first says "the woman...gave me..." Commented Jun 30, 2015 at 9:54
  • I'd agree that 'biblical' is unhelpful here; 'found in the Bible' (or at least in any version I've read) is highly unlikely. Though some people might be surprised to discover which of the following three words doesn't appear: Trinity, pajamas, boomerang. Commented Jun 30, 2015 at 16:33

Not quite what you want perhaps: a misdirect, a diversionary tactic used by magicians.

I can't find a good dictionary definition of this usage, but Wikipedia defines it for magic, and The Guardian uses it well:

Bankers, bosses, selfish politicians; all are masters of misdirection. It allows them to escape blame-free.


a wrong or incorrect direction, guidance, or instruction.

  • 2
    +1 for "misdirect[ion], which fits well in this quote: "Let me tell you, they know their jobs well. [Fill-in with your least-favorite party] are expert flim-flam artists, skilled at misdirection and preemptive accusation".
    – Papa Poule
    Commented Jun 29, 2015 at 21:48
  • Misdirect is a good answer. You should expand your answer to include a definition and example usage though.
    – dwjohnston
    Commented Jun 29, 2015 at 21:51

I agree with Avon that "frame" (or "frame up") is the best short term for the tactic that the OP asks about. A longer phrase that suggests the same thing is "set [someone] up to be the fall guy." Although a "fall guy" in some instances is a willing participant in a conspiracy to obstruct justice—pleading guilty to a crime in order to let others off the hook—when "fall guy" is linked to the verbal phrase "set up," the usual sense of the expression is that the fall guy is an unwitting dupe or scapegoat of the actual criminal or criminals.

A Google Books search for the phrase "set him up to be the fall guy" finds a number of fairly recent matches, all in the above sense. Some examples: From Margaret Daley, Security Breach (2015):

Selena nodded. “But Sid Huntington insists he's innocent, that someone set him up to be the fall guy, and Michael believed him.”

From Diana Kaye, The Power of Trust (2013):

He was fully absorbed in his own cleverness, by now: "I've done it before. I can make it look as if you've been a victim. It's simple; really; just a matter of planting evidence and letting the right people know where it is. I can forge anyone's handwriting; too, that'll come in handy. Leave it to me; I can make anyone appear guilty as Hell. We'll need someone to put the blame on, though ... Hey, I've got it! Rob, he'll do! I can set him up to be the fall guy ... what are you doing?” She'd pushed him away, violently.

From James Campbell, Southern Gold (2011):

Slim laughed softly. "What's going to happen hen your cop boyfriend finds out that he has been misled by you all along? Wonder what he's going to think about you when he learn that you and his brother set him up to be the fall-guy if the shit really hit the fan?....I'm just wondering, when will you really tell him that the joke is on him?”

From Jeff Blackburn, Huitt's Trail (2010):

Dwayne Reed had been a childhood friend, who followed the boys everywhere. Reed was a simpleton, who did everything that the boys told him to. They in turn had treated Reed with great contempt, they teased him, and set him up to be the fall guy for all their devious pranks. Reed believed the boys to be his only friends and had followed them down the path to wrongdoing.

From David Rosenfelt, Bury the Lead (2007):

"Lassiter, whether on his own or with Eliot's approval, murdered the other women to deflect attention from the main target, Rosalie. Then, to get revenge against Daniel, Lassiter set him up to be the fall guy. I'm sure he found it fit together quite well.”

From H. Paul Jeffers, History's Greatest Conspiracies (2004):

More than seventy years after Bruno Richard Hauptmann was executed for the kidnapping and murder of the two-year-old son of aviation hero Charles A. Lindbergh, some students of what was known as "the crime of the century," which the famed muckraking journalist H. L. Mencken termed the greatest story since the Resurrection of Christ, believe that Hauptmann was in fact the victim of a conspiracy involving faked evidence to set him up to be the fall guy.

From Jan Delasara, PopLit, PopCult and The X-Files: A Critical Exploration (2000):

There is, however, another possibility. The intelligence forces of the Parallax Corporation may have been aware that Frady was investigating the group, and then simply set him up to be the fall guy for yet another political assassination.

  • 2
    "Set them up to take the fall" avoids the potential ambiguity with willing conspirators, I think. Commented Jun 30, 2015 at 6:40
  • 1
    What about a "cover up"? Would that fit, too?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jun 30, 2015 at 7:27
  • @Mari-LouA: At least in U.S. parlance, "cover up" is inextricably linked to the circumstances of the Watergate affair of 1972, where the focus of the obstruction of justice was not specifically to pick an innocent (or even somewhat guilty) individual to serve as a sacrificial victim while everyone else got away scot free. Instead, I think the goal of the conspiracy was to deny any wrongdoing, stonewall investigators, and hide ("cover up") or minimize the significance of as much incriminating evidence as they could. But a coverup can go hand in hand with a frame up, certainly.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Jun 30, 2015 at 7:37
  • It's "coverup", one word, silly of me not to see that. Thank you for the insightful definition/explanation.Well, I'm curious to know what "missing" word is, and if the OP will ever tell us. (I suspect not)
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jun 30, 2015 at 11:45

The psychological term for this is 'projection'.

Psychological projection is a theory in psychology in which humans defend themselves against their own unconscious impulses or qualities (both positive and negative) by denying their existence in themselves while attributing them to others. For example, a person who is habitually rude may constantly accuse other people of being rude. It incorporates blame shifting.



Slander is the act of making a false, negative spoken statement about someone. Words falsely spoken that damage the reputation of another.

In law, the word slander is contrasted with libel, which is the act of making a false written statement about someone.

If you misrepresent or malign someone, particularly in a public way, that's a hatchet job.

hatchet job (n) : a false accusation of an offense


  • 1
    Slander and hatchet job are fine for the falsely accusing part of the question but don't really address the "diverting the attention from the accuser" part of the question. Commented Jun 29, 2015 at 21:17

How about --
red herring: to intentionally mislead or deceive.

  • 3
    Welcome to the site! 'Red herring' is a good suggestion - can you improve your answer with citations and/or examples of usage? Commented Jun 30, 2015 at 7:28

perhaps "the pot calling the kettle black"

  • I could imagine that phrase being used in that way, user 127286. Perhaps you could add some explanation about how it might apply to the specific question.
    – ScotM
    Commented Jun 30, 2015 at 20:20

How about Impute?

From Merriam Webster:

Verb im·pute \im-ˈpyüt\

  1. to lay the responsibility or blame for often falsely or unjustly

Was also thinking about inculpate, but impute seems a better fit.


Your edit sounds a little like a tu quoque, a Latin phrase that is sometimes used in English. It literally means "you, too." If someone accuses you of something that you're actually guilty of, and your only defense is to point out that the accuser is guilty of the same thing, that's a tu quoque. It's considered a logical fallacy if you think someone else's guilt absolves you of your own guilt.


sub·ter·fuge /ˈsəbtərˌfyo͞oj/ noun noun: subterfuge; plural noun: subterfuges

deceit used in order to achieve one's goal.
Oxford Dictionaries


I would use the word demagogue or demagogy for this act as politicians are mentioned. I am also in favor of Red herring.

  • I've never heard of demagogy, I always have heard the noun demagoguery. Apparently they're used interchangeably (although in different regions)
    – j.i.h.
    Commented Jun 30, 2015 at 13:38

I believe the neologism “swift boating” or “swiftboating” captures this concept. I’m not aware of an older word or phrase that does. Swiftboating is a term that was coined in the 2004 U.S. presidential election.

During his first term, substantial evidence had come to light that the Bush’s had used their family connections to secure a place in the Texas Air National Guard so that he could avoid serving in Vietnam. The evidence even suggested that he didn’t fulfill his National Guard obligations, abd that it was covered up for him.

Partly in response to Bush’s dodgy war record, Democrats nominated John Kerry, a veteran who had served with distinction in the Vietnam War, having earned three Purple Heart medals for having been wounded three times in combat, and Silver Star and Bronze Star medals for valorous conduct in combat.

Kerry had served as the commanding officer of a Navy swift boat. Swift boats were light watercraft that were used to patrol inland waterways and conduct missions behind enemy lines in Vietnam.

In response to Kerry being made the nominee, independent groups supportive of the Bush campaign began attacking Kerry’s war record, claiming that he was undeserving of his medals and that his military service had been less than honorable. The group which led this attack was an organization called “Swift Boat Veteran’s for Truth.”

Although none of the Swift Boat Veterans allegations were found to be credible by independent media, they are widely seen as having muddied the water sufficiently to have neutralized the issue, and maybe even to have made Kerry’s military service a net negative for him in the election.

Since that time, I have seen the term “swift boating” or “swiftboating” to denote attacks by shadowy third party groups. I’m not sure that usage has settled the term pertaining to the practice of intentionally and knowingly attacking someone on an issue for which they appear to be above reproach in order to confuse the public about one’s own shortcomings on the issue, but I believe that given the history of the term, that is the usage that makes the most sense.


Perhaps "projection".

From Wikipedia under Psychological projection:

A defense mechanism in which the ego defends itself against unconscious impulses or qualities...by attributing them to others.


How about fabricate?

From Oxford Dictionaries:

Invent (something) in order to deceive: ‘officers fabricated evidence’

synonyms: forge, falsify, fake, counterfeit

Counterfeit may also be suitable here.

  • The editor suggested an answer in the edit summary but it doesn't actually appear in the post. This is why two experienced users rejected the edit in the review queue.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Nov 21, 2020 at 13:30
  • If you think the answer proposed is good, then it should be included in the post not hidden in an edit box.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Nov 21, 2020 at 13:32

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