I came across a phrase for a type of question which is designed to discover someone's religious background, particularly in the context of sectarianism and divided societies but can't for the life of me remember it.

For example, if you are in Scotland and I ask you what football team you support, that may reveal your religion. Or in N.Ireland, if I ask what school you attend, likewise that may do the same.

It's like a 'veiled question' only that's not the term I'm looking for. Any help appreciated. I've a feeling that the second part of the phrase is (question) as in, a INSERT TERM question, but not 100% sure.

  • Ruse?........... – Sentinel Jul 10 at 22:45
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    This sounds somewhat similar to a concept called social engineering. – cobaltduck Jul 11 at 11:11
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    an indirect question? – Orangesandlemons Jul 11 at 12:21
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    @Squiggs - Woah! Malice? When did that come into it? – AndyT Jul 11 at 15:46
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    @AndyT - in the context of sectarianism, often this type of question is used with malice to discriminate or judge the answerer, (often illustrated from its lack of directness) - otherwise it would be irrelevant and a non issue to the asker if that makes sense. That probably needs added to the question. – Squiggs Jul 11 at 15:50

10 Answers 10

up vote 21 down vote accepted

A probe for seeing if someone belongs to a particular group can be called a shibboleth. Wikipedia link

[Merriam-Webster]

1 a : a word or saying used by adherents of a party, sect, or belief and usually regarded by others as empty of real meaning
- the old shibboleths come rolling off their lips —Joseph Epstein

b : a widely held belief
- today this book publishing shibboleth is a myth —L. A. Wood

c : truism, platitude
- some truth in the shibboleth that crime does not pay —Lee Rogow

2 a : a use of language regarded as distinctive of a particular group
- accent was … a shibboleth of social class —Vivian Ducat

b : a custom or usage regarded as distinguishing one group from others
- for most of the well-to-do in the town, dinner was a shibboleth, its hour dividing mankind —Osbert Sitwell

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    Can you please give some context on how shibboleth is used to mean "a phrase for a type of question which is designed to discover someone's religious background,"? – Cascabel Jul 10 at 20:39
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    The word, which comes from Hebrew, appears in the Jewish Bible. There's a story about two different warring Israelite tribes that gave it a different pronunciation. So when the first tribe captured someone they told them to say the word "shibboleth", and if the prisoner said it the wrong way they killed him (Judges 12:5-6). The meaning has clearly broadened, as the M-W definitions show, and the fact that it comes from a Bible story links it with religious themes, even though in the initial story both groups were Jewish. – JonathanZ Jul 11 at 3:40
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    The most common usage (in my experience) is still relatively narrow, fitting the flavor of the original biblical reference -- i.e. definitions 2a and 2b as given. It's not really a veiled question but rather a confrontational test: "Are you one of our clique, or an outsider?" – user36001 Jul 11 at 10:59
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    No it's not, not even senses 2a,b. 'veiled question' is already the correct term. 'indirect question' or 'probing' might also work; 'fishing' if it was less directed. I can't understand how this was ever accepted as the answer. – smci Jul 13 at 0:57
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    obligatory: xkcd.com/806 – Tasos Papastylianou Jul 13 at 9:50

I think it is worth mentioning the term fishing which is commonly used in job interviews, for instance, where the interviewer is not really interested in hiring the person in question, generally a professional, but just to obtain sensitive information about them or their company with the excuse of a possible new job.

The term is related to the idiomatic expression fishing expedition.

a search or investigation undertaken with the hope, though not the stated purpose, of discovering information.

(ODO)

  • I suspect that "fishing expedition" in that sense comes from that usage of "fishing", not the other way around. Note that verb definition 2 of the root word "fish" is the exact sense you're using here. – Walt Jul 10 at 19:46
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    @Walt - Not sure which came first, anyway , Fishing expedition: An attempt to find useful information by asking questions at random. For example, The sales force was told to go on a fishing expedition to find out what they could about the company's competitors. This expression was taken up by lawyers to describe interrogating an adversary in hopes of finding relevant evidence and is now used more broadly still. [c. 1930] – user240918 Jul 10 at 19:57
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    Fishing expeditions use baited questions. – Mazura Jul 10 at 23:52

I think "veiled question" is actually perfect here. From the OED:

veiled, adj.

  1. b. Not openly declared, expressed, or stated; implied or inferred. Also: covert, disguised.

In the case of "what school do you go to?" The "veiled question" would be "what's your religion?"


If you're looking for one term to describe both the surface question and the veiled question, I'd go with "double-meaning question." Again from the OED:

double meaning, n.

Double or ambiguous signification; the use of an ambiguous word or phrase, esp. to convey an indelicate meaning

I'm surprised I haven't seen anyone answer

a probing question

Are you going to need more information? Are you looking to find a deeper meaning? Perhaps asking a probing question will help you get to the bottom of things. Probing questions are not just about clarifying specific details; instead, these questions dig much deeper than the surface. An effective probing question helps to get a person to talk about their personal opinions and feelings, and promotes critical thinking. -- study.com

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    Re: surprise. Probably because there is nothing 'masked' or 'veiled' in a probing question. While they dig into deeper meaning, they are direct whereas OP wants questions that ask one thing but are trying to find out something else. – mcalex Jul 13 at 5:23

It's not exactly "a term" - just a natural combination of the relevant adjective and noun - but you could reasonably say that one way to "surreptitiously" elicit sensitive information would be to...

ask a proxy question (18 hits in Google Books).


The relevant definition in Collins Dictionary is...

A proxy is a person or thing that is acting or being used in the place of someone or something else.

(Actually, looking at dozens of written instances of proxy questions are [whatever they are], I suspect the term is in fact quite well established in domains such as social science / market research (devising and analysing election polls, market research questionaires, etc.)

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    When I look at the link, I find 13 hits for "ask a proxy question" and only two instances are viewable. In fact, if you search "question" in one of the book titles listed by GB, there are no examples showing "proxy". The 2nd link proxy questions are produces 16 hits (I'm not sure I would define that as dozens.) I am very bewildered and disillusioned by GoogleBooks... – Mari-Lou A Jul 10 at 18:51
  • @Mari-LouA: I'm also bewildered. My first Google Books link above still returns 18 hits for me (the second returns 91 right now; I can't remember if it was that yesterday). But I get almost 1000 hits from an Internet-wide search for "proxy questions are", which is quite enough for me to accept that the collocation has at least some currency, which is the extent of my parenthesised claim above. But I will say that at the time of starting to write this answer I thought it was just "one possible suggestion". I'd now say it's the only credible answer - but obviously few agree with me! :( – FumbleFingers Jul 11 at 12:01
  • I just get 16 hits on the third (last) link, and still 13 on the first. What can I say? I don't dislike the expression "proxy question" I think it works but the data that your links provide do not fully convince me of its frequency of usage. Whereas a "shibboleth" I instantly recognize but believe is more esoteric than your practical suggestion. I wouldn't teach it to any of my private students, for example, unless it cropped up in a text. I like "fishing expedition" but it's far too ambiguous for obvious reasons. – Mari-Lou A Jul 11 at 13:00
  • @Mari-LouA: I don't understand this obsession with assigning a precise value to "usage frequency". Clearly the collocation does exist / has been used repeatedly, and semantically it's a very precise match to OP's highly specific context. I don't know if you personally were familiar with proxy question before it came up here, but I'm sure even you as a (highly competent) non-native speaker would instantly understand the full meaning (and relevant implications) on first encounter in any reasonably informative context. – FumbleFingers Jul 11 at 13:10
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    Ignoring the system's entreaties to move this to "chat", I should also point out that I don't think a question itself can be a "shibboleth". In support of which I note that Google Books has no instances of question is a shibboleth (which seems at best "semantically confused" to me), but there are several hits for question is a proxy. – FumbleFingers Jul 11 at 13:30

The 'Columbo' technique, based off of Peter Falk's character in the 1970s show of the same name is a pretty fun term that relates to these types of questions.

Basic Info On Columbo Technique

"This is a nice clock. You know, I used to have a car exactly the same color as this. Chevvy, it was."

"Hey, I've got a red Chevvy!"

"Have you? Well, you know mine was a pretty good one."

"Well mine's a '56. Special convertible!"

"There aren't too many of those around."

"Yeah, I got it from a guy down on 52nd Street."

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    As I understand it, the Columbo technique is to get the answer by clairvoyance (which is not admissible in court) and then badger the guilty one until he loses his temper and blurts out something incriminating. – Anton Sherwood Jul 11 at 4:54
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    From my understanding, the whole point of the Columbo technique is to avoid confrontation or revealing your full knowledge. Instead, you ask a series of questions in an unassuming, at-ease manner to build up to a final 'just one more thing' moment. The goal is to come across as non-aggressive or badgering, while building a logical 'trap'. – Balaz2ta Jul 11 at 5:23
  • This is fantastic, I had no idea there was a name for this nor did I know any of the history. +1 my friend! – RoboBear Jul 12 at 0:07
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    @AntonSherwood: His method is more clever than how you describe it. He plays dumb to get the smarter person (the murderer) to fil in the gaps, unwittingly indicting themselves. There are often scenes where Columbo suddenly offers detailed information on a particular topic which his earlier behavior (playing dumb) suggested he wasn't aware of. The suspect lies because they assume they can fool the idiot detective, but the actually clever detective can now prove that the suspect has willfully lied, which proves they're trying to hide something. – Flater Jul 13 at 6:27
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    @AntonSherwood: Or, instead of lying, they simply reveal something that seems innocuous to mention to an "idiot" cop. It effectively all boils down to the Socratic method, whereby you reach the truth by guiding others (often opponents of the proposed truth) to unwittingly confirm it. – Flater Jul 13 at 6:29

How about surreptitious? The meaning is stealthy, sneaky, sly, furtive, etc.

A leading question:

[Merriam-Webster]

: a question asked in a way that is intended to produce a desired answer · asking witnesses leading questions.

A good psychologist (or trial lawyer) will steer a conversation toward a particular subject by asking a series of leading questions.

If it's done subtly enough, the person answering will actually volunteer the looked-for information (perhaps indirectly) without even realizing that they've been manipulated to do so.

Unlike what certain comments are suggesting, leading questions are not only meant to get somebody to parrot back something specific. They can be used that way, but they also are used to produce a particular type of information, even if the specifics are not known in advance. They most definitely do steer conversation towards a goal.

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    -1, sorry; you seem to have misunderstood the question, or the definition you've quoted, or both. The kind of question that the OP describes is completely different from a leading question (at least in the sense that Merriam-Webster defines). – ruakh Jul 11 at 2:04
  • @ruakh I want to get you to confess your religious background, so I start asking leading questions that move your answers away from one topic and onto that one. Good psychologists are excellent at steering conversation in a certain direction. That's exactly what this is. The OP also requested a word that filled the phrase a __ question. – Jason Bassford Jul 11 at 2:10
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    The purpose of leading questions is not to change the subject, but rather to phrase a question in such a way as to produce a specific desired answer (e.g. a trial lawyer trying to get the defendant to admit their own guilt). Despite the name, leading questions are generally intended to "lead" them to say a certain response that you already have in mind, not merely to "lead" them to a topic of conversation. – V2Blast Jul 11 at 2:40
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    You have it exactly opposite. A leading question is not designed to elicit information at all. – piojo Jul 11 at 3:22

It would be appropriate to call such a question guised or cloaked, since it is trying to gain/ascertain information under the pretence of something else. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the two terms in the following manner:

guise

An external form, appearance, or manner of presentation, typically concealing the true nature of something.

Examples:

‘They have been presented in so many guises it's hard to know which one to believe.’

'Amnesties come in many guises, their purpose often unclear.’


cloaked

Hide, cover, or disguise (something)

Examples:

‘But these reactionary ideas find it necessary to cloak themselves in the language of science to gain legitimacy.’

‘she cloaked her embarrassment by rushing into speech’


In certain contexts/situations, loaded question and implicature might present themselves as viable alternatives.

This assumes the following requested meaning:

A question which is asked with the intent of gaining information without asking directly, possibly because the subject would be unwilling to disclose that information truthfully

The following conditions are also assumed:

  • A single question is asked as part of a regular conversation

  • The mark is unaware of any test being conducted

  • The question is only tangentially related to the actual information, if at all

  • The response reveals the information unambiguously; to cheat such a test requires full understanding and awareness of both the question and expected responses

I suggest the phrase litmus test question, or simply litmus test

While most online dictionaries I consulted do not specify a similarly sounding secondary meaning (it refers more broadly to any kind of test that gives results with one measurement like the actual litmus test which shows the pH of the tested sample), Wikipedia has an article on this technique being applied in politics.

A litmus test is a question asked of a potential candidate for high office, the answer to which would determine whether the nominating official would proceed with the appointment or nomination. The expression is a metaphor based on the litmus test in chemistry, in which one is able to test the general acidity of a substance, but not its exact pH.

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