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.

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    This question is very similar and 'Frame' is one of the answers. – landocalrissian Jun 29 '15 at 19:56
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    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 Jun 29 '15 at 20:11
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    Hypocrisy? There's not really a verb for that though. – nollidge Jun 29 '15 at 21:30
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    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 Jun 30 '15 at 0:16
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    I find this Chinese idiom interesting: 做賊喊抓賊. It literally means the thief is calling out to catch a thief – RexYuan Jun 30 '15 at 7:04

14 Answers 14



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. – technosaurus Jul 1 '15 at 8:44

To frame someone

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


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    It's related, but it's not the same thing. It's one reason to frame someone, but not necessarily the reason. – T.J. Crowder Jun 30 '15 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

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    Sorry; definitely not biblical. That's an invention of some Blame Shift fans. – Hugh Jun 30 '15 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? – Potatoswatter Jun 30 '15 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..." – Brian Hitchcock Jun 30 '15 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. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 30 '15 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.

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    +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 Jun 29 '15 at 21:48
  • Misdirect is a good answer. You should expand your answer to include a definition and example usage though. – dwjohnston Jun 29 '15 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.

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    "Set them up to take the fall" avoids the potential ambiguity with willing conspirators, I think. – Matt Nordhoff Jun 30 '15 at 6:40
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    What about a "cover up"? Would that fit, too? – Mari-Lou A Jun 30 '15 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 Jun 30 '15 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 Jun 30 '15 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


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    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. – Kristina Lopez Jun 29 '15 at 21:17

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

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    Welcome to the site! 'Red herring' is a good suggestion - can you improve your answer with citations and/or examples of usage? – EleventhDoctor Jun 30 '15 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 Jun 30 '15 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. Jun 30 '15 at 13:38

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.

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