I'm looking for a word to fill in this blank.

"I'm certain of it: the square root of 225 is 25," said Peter. But when Mary pulled out her phone and used the calculator app to find that it was in fact 15, Peter recoiled. In a quick ___, he redirected, adding, "But you know, this reminds me of a funny story involving Euler..."

The word I'm looking for would mean a deflection from a conversational faux pas by redirecting the conversation. It could describe making an excuse for one's flub, but not necessarily. I've thought of some related verbs like redirect, deflect, rebound, recover, and so on, but I'm looking for a noun, and one that pertains particularly to talking. Tangent (as in, "going off on a tangent") is relevant, though that doesn't have the connotation of recovering for a mistake.

I really feel like at some point, the French must have invented a word for this, and then we stole it. Alternatively, a word for a deflection from a generally uncomfortable conversation would also work.

We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Sep 10 '16 at 20:24

16 Answers 16

up vote 29 down vote accepted

You could say that

In a quick side step, he redirected [the conversation].

Also often spelled sidestep.

A motion, physical or metaphorical, to avoid or dodge something.

This describes a physical dodging motion to the side rather than forward, but it can also be used as a metaphorical action to avoid a topic in a conversation.

The verb form is sidestep.

  • 1
    +1 ... In light of the alternate, single-word spelling you mention (reconfirmed here), this seems to be a very good answer to the OP’s single-word request. – Papa Poule Sep 9 '16 at 17:47
  • 3
    +1 "Dodge" can be a noun as well as a verb. "In a quick dodge, Peter shoehorned a non-sequitur into the conversation by saying, "But you know, this reminds me . . .." – rhetorician Sep 9 '16 at 22:54
  • You could also use manoeuvre (which means "move skilfully or carefully"). "In a quick manoeuvre, he redirected.." Manoeuvre implies a movement, but it is less specific about the nature of the movement than 'sidestep' or 'dodge' – Caustix Sep 11 '16 at 11:31

Change of subject would fill in the blank in a natural, American-English way. I don't know of a single word that would do it without sounding contrived.

In conversation if someone tries to redirect the conversation to avoid some topic, and the other party catches on, it is often called out with "Don't change the subject"

Change the subjectDictionary.com

Deliberately talk about another topic, as in If someone asks you an embarrassing question, just change the subject. This term uses subject in the sense of “a topic of conversation,” a usage dating from the late 1500s.

You might call this an evasion:

the action of evading something.

"their adroit evasion of almost all questions"

synonyms: avoidance, elusion, circumvention, dodging, sidestepping

"the evasion of immigration control"

an indirect answer; a prevaricating excuse.

plural noun: evasions

"the protestations and evasions of a witness"

synonyms: prevarication, evasiveness, beating around the bush, hedging, pussyfooting, hemming and hawing, equivocation, vagueness, temporization; rare tergiversation

"she grew tired of all the evasion"

Similarly, you could say the person is being evasive:

tending to avoid commitment or self-revelation, especially by responding only indirectly.

"she was evasive about her phone number"

synonyms: equivocal, prevaricating, elusive, ambiguous, noncommittal, vague, inexplicit, unclear; roundabout, indirect; informal cagey, shifty, slippery

"the judge was infuriated by the defendant's evasive answers"

directed toward avoidance or escape.

"they decided to take evasive action"

synonyms: equivocal, prevaricating, elusive, ambiguous, noncommittal, vague, inexplicit, unclear; roundabout, indirect; informal cagey, shifty, slippery

"the judge was infuriated by the defendant's evasive answers"

  • Please explain why you feel this is a suitable term for this situation. – tchrist Sep 10 '16 at 20:16
  • @tchrist Um, what? I feel this is a suitable term for this situation because the word exactly fits the sentence, and it exactly matches what the OP is describing, and I've heard it used in similar contexts in the past. Can you please explain why you feel this is not a suitable term for this situation? – Kevin Workman Sep 12 '16 at 12:51

Diversion. From The Oxford Dictionary of Difficult Words:

di·ver·sion
1 an instance of turning something aside from its course: a diversion of resources from defense to civil research

It implies an intention to avoid an expected outcome.

  • 1
    I identified and linked to the source of the quoted definition in your answer. Please include citations of this type in future answers. Thanks! – Sven Yargs Sep 9 '16 at 18:31

In a quick parry, he redirected, adding, "But you know, this reminds me of a funny story involving Euler. . . .

parry: an act or instance of skillfully avoiding something

[...] Parry (which is used in fencing, among other applications) probably comes from "parez," a form of the French verb parer, meaning "to guard or ward off."M-W

Note: I know to parry is normally in self-defence, but perhaps the noun would work.

You can use the word digress:

leave the main subject temporarily in speech or writing.

In your example,

"I'm certain of it: the square root of 225 is 25," said Peter. But when Mary pulled out her phone and used the calculator app to find that it was in fact 15, Peter recoiled. In a quick digress, he added, "But you know, this reminds me of a funny story involving Euler..."

  • 4
    I was hoping for a word that is specifically used for after one has made a mistake, or just for some generally awkward situation, but digress may be the best word that exists. Also, In your quote, I think you want to use "digression" instead of "digress". – Kevin Long Sep 9 '16 at 15:11
  • I believe digress fits the context. Also, I wanted to use digress, it is perfectly valid – Darshan Chaudhary Sep 9 '16 at 15:15

He quickly covered for his error with a redirected anecdote, "Did I tell you about. . . ."

In this example covered for is synonymous with "hide" or "conceal" but in a duplicitous way: For example

The girl provided an alibi for her boyfriend to cover for his absence during class.

  • I'm looking for a word particularly pertaining to conversation, but "cover" does certainly work in that context. – Kevin Long Sep 9 '16 at 15:09

Segue

It literally means follows, in Italian, but segue is the word you're looking for.

In a quick segue Peter brought up a childhood story of his.

I want to disagree with the real definition that attributes it to stage acting. Though, comedians often segue their topics; it's an art. But if I were talking with a friend about oranges and suddenly he starts talking about his love for cheese, I'd say to him, "What an odd segue, my friend."


Divert

You can also divert but to use it like a noun like segue, you'd have to say

In a quick diversion. . . .

  • I do think I may have heard segue more in relation to performance than everyday conversation (though not necessarily only stage acting) – topo morto Sep 11 '16 at 19:58

The word pivot can mean to change direction.

: to turn on or around a central point
Merriam-Webster

This notion is applied when someone answers a question by turning the question into about some other issue. For example, in a recent news article:

"So, he believes President Obama was born here," Conway said of Trump, quickly pivoting to an argument about Obama's performance in office.

That's a smart pivot by Conway! There are many more people open to an argument about the allegedly poor job Obama has done as president than to one about how Obama was actually not born in the United States.
The Washington Post

You might call this a switch of conversation.

  • 1
    Please explain why you feel this is an answer to the question, preferably with references. – tchrist Sep 10 '16 at 20:26

There's another term, which like parry was borrowed from fencing: riposte. From www.dictionary.com:

a quick, sharp return in speech or action; counterstroke:

Fencing. a quick thrust given after parrying a lunge.

It carries the notion that one is countering from a perceived attack with another attack (as the fictional Peter may be doing).

Other possibilities are:

  • rejoinder, "a reply, especially a sharp or witty one"
  • comeback, "a quick reply to a critical remark"
  • Thank you, @trentcl, for proposing the edit (and tchrist for implementing it). I know what I wanted to type, but my fingers had another idea. – rajah9 Sep 12 '16 at 15:24

"I'm certain of it: the square root of 225 is 25," said Peter. But when Mary pulled out her phone and used the calculator app to find that it was in fact 15, Peter recoiled. "But you know, this reminds me of a funny story involving Euler..." he hastily diverted.

  • Or diversion as in ”In a quick diversion, he redirected. . . .” – Stephen Rasku Sep 9 '16 at 23:10

I think I have the "French Connection" for you. The OP's reference to the French having invented "a word for this" which "we" have now stolen — perish the thought — has me wondering about the possibility of perfidious Albion filching volte-face, as in

In a quick volte-face, he redirected, adding. . . /

Volte-face: A complete change of attitude or opinion; a reversal in policy. (M-W)

Likewise, what about:

In a quick verbal pirouette, he redirected, adding. . . .

  • verbal: Relating to or in the form of words. (ODO)

  • pirouette: A full turn of the body on the point of the toe in ballet. (TFD)

  • @Kevin Long Are my suggestions above the "mots justes"? – Peter Point Sep 10 '16 at 3:30
  • 1
    The English phrase about face appears to be the equivalent of volte-face. It's not clear that it implies the preemptive defense that the OP asks for, however. – Walter Mitty Sep 11 '16 at 11:29

How about turnabout?

From Dictionary.com:

turnabout: the act of turning in a different or opposite direction

The OP's example:

In a quick turnabout, he redirected, adding, “But you know, this reminds me of a funny story involving Euler. . . .”

As per its definition, turnabout corresponds to the subject's initial conscious or unconscious mental act to turn the conversation in a different or opposite direction; it embodies an internal discounting or denial of the incoming information. The subject then opts to redirect the conversation, from the point of view of the other party, thereby making the mental turnabout "real". The other party perceives the combination of turnabout (internal to the subject) and redirection as deflection, experiencing only the redirection.

In my view, the following sentence doesn't make sufficiently clear the relationship between deflection and redirection:

In a quick deflection, he redirected, adding, "But you know, this reminds me of a funny story involving Euler..."

It seems to me that it would make more sense and sound better for a third-person narrator to say "In a quick turnaround, he redirected ..." rather than "In a quick deflection, he redirected ..."

  • Please explain why you feel this answers the question. – tchrist Sep 10 '16 at 20:27
  • @tchrist I was doing that last night but kept falling asleep at my computer I didn't have confidence in my explanation, so I deleted it. I'll give it another try. – Richard Kayser Sep 10 '16 at 20:43
  • Plus one for : deflect - draw someone's attention away from something; "He deflected his competitors" – Mazura Sep 11 '16 at 0:25

The verb stonewall / stonewalling can work for this (plus more) and is not uncommon. From The Free Dictionary:

v.intr., Informal

  • To engage in delaying tactics; stall.
  • To refuse to answer or cooperate.

v.tr., Informal

  • To refuse to answer or cooperate with; resist or rebuff:

v.

  • engage in delaying tactics or refuse to cooperate; "The President stonewalled when he realized the plot was being uncovered by a journalist"

It can mean many different things but generally refers to any debate tactic that defensively attempts to avoid answering a question, which includes blatantly changing the subject.

How about "to obfuscate" - such as when a politician, in a conversation, deliberately tries to lead the listener/reader down a different path by using words that are intended to deceive, confuse, distract, or imply something altogether different. I liken it to a semantic sleight of hand.

protected by Matt E. Эллен Sep 9 '16 at 18:48

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