What is the word or phrase identifying an argument or statement for which, based on the source, you cannot tell whether the person is being honest or not? The kind of argument or statement where you could think the person actually believes what is being said, when in fact he/she may not.

I know there is a term for this. I just can't remember what it is, and I'm not having any luck Googling for it.

  • Maybe 'ambivalent'. I think we need a sentence to show how you would use the word. You can leave a gap where the word should go. Aug 27, 2015 at 21:06
  • The passive formulation of the question in your title obscures what is actually going on here. It is not that the argument cannot be distinguished from jest, but that some people cannot distinguish it from jest. As we say, "they don't get the joke."
    – TimR
    Aug 27, 2015 at 21:50
  • perhaps neither fish, nor fowl.
    – Graffito
    Aug 27, 2015 at 23:35
  • "Fun game: try to post a YouTube comment so stupid that people realize you must be joking. (Hint: this is impossible)" ~[Randall Munroe](xkcd.com/301/]
    – Patrick M
    Aug 28, 2015 at 1:09

4 Answers 4


Alright, I figured it out by searching for "believable facetious argument." I was a little bit off on my definition of it, and it's more of an internet adage than a part of actual English usage. Poe's law is what I was thinking of.

From Wikipedia:

Poe's law is an Internet adage which states that, without a clear indicator of the author's intent, parodies of extreme views will, to some readers, be indistinguishable from sincere expressions of the parodied views.

Thanks for the help though, and upvotes for the effort. :)

  • 2
    Is "Poe" the name of the person who formulated this law or an an acronym for "parody of extremism"?
    – Sven Yargs
    Aug 27, 2015 at 21:32
  • 3
    It's a name - Nathan Poe. Nice backronym though. :)
    – kitti
    Aug 27, 2015 at 21:34
  • 2
    I was thinking that "Onion Effect" might be a good name for the same phenomenon. You may recall that a few years ago the Beijing Evening News picked up a story (reported by The Onion) that the U.S. Congress was threatening to leave Washington, D.C., for another U.S. city unless city officials promised to build it a new venue with luxury suites and a retractable dome.
    – Sven Yargs
    Aug 27, 2015 at 21:59
  • @RyanP for those of us who notice EL&U SE phenomena, please award your answer a green tick. I want to see if a Uroboros will appear.
    – Hugh
    Aug 28, 2015 at 1:41
  • 1
    @Hugh After 31 more hours.
    – kitti
    Aug 28, 2015 at 14:35

When a speaker employs verbal irony, but there are no detectable indications as to whether or not they actually mean what they say, we might call that speaker "straight-faced" or "deadpan".

"Straight face" is defined by Merriam-Webster as "a face that shows no emotion and especially no amusement".

"Deadpan" is defined by Merriam-Webster as "showing no feeling or emotion".

  • Also, these aren't common terms, but if you genuinely don't know whether they're being ironic or not, you might say that they're being "possibly ironic" or maybe "unverifiably satirical". Aug 27, 2015 at 21:03

"double entendre"

  • double entendre - (noun) ambiguity of meaning arising from language that lends itself to more than one interpretation - synonyms: ambiguity, double meaning, innuendo, play on.

e.g. "The song's title is a double entendre."

EDIT: After reading your comment explaining exactly what you're looking for, I suggest "a facetious statement" or "a misleading statement."

  • facetious - (adj) Treating serious issues with deliberately inappropriate humor.

  • misleading - (adj) giving the wrong idea or impression

  • I don't mean something which has multiple meanings, but something which you might think the person actually believed when they didn't (or vice versa). Like if someone was a believer in all kinds of quack medical cures, but then posted something about coconut oil curing cancer which was meant as a joke - but you can't tell, because of the beliefs of the person making the statement.
    – kitti
    Aug 27, 2015 at 20:56
  • Less used than "double meaning": dual meaning
    – Graffito
    Aug 27, 2015 at 23:20

I might offer two possibilities here, both legal terms: from Burton's Legal Thesaurus, 4E. Copyright © 2007 by William C. Burton. Used with permission of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

SUGGESTIO FALSI. A statement of a falsehood. This amounts to a fraud whenever the party making it was bound to disclose the truth.

SUPPRESSIO VERI. Concealment of truth. 2. In general a suppression of the truth, when a party is bound to disclose it, vitiates a contract. In the contract of insurance a knowledge of the facts is required to enable the underwriter to calculate the chances and form a due estimate of the risk; and, in this contract perhaps more than any other, the parties are required to represent every thing with fairness. 3. Suppressio veri as well as suggestio falsi is a ground to rescind an agreement, or at least not to carry it into execution.

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