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What is it called when you are asked a question that has nothing to do with the subject at hand and is sometimes meant to make you look bad?

I think it is a legal term used in a court setting.

closed as off-topic by JJJ, Lawrence, TimLymington, AmE speaker, curiousdannii Sep 29 '18 at 10:47

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32

I think you're looking for a loaded question.

For example,

Have you stopped beating your wife?

is a loaded question and is designed to make the answerer look bad. Whether they say "Yes, I've stopped beating my wife" or "No, I haven't stopped beating my wife," the answerer is assumed to have, at one point, beaten their wife on a regular basis.

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    A loaded question is not the same as a question that makes you look bad. There is some overlap but they are completely differently defined. OP is looking for a question that is not necessarily loaded, but which is asked for the sole purpose of revealing something about the answerer that puts them in an unfavorable light. OP's question does not inherently require the question to be loaded. – Flater Sep 28 '18 at 10:38
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    @Flater There is some difference, but they are closely related. A loaded question is one that not merely asks something, but asserts something (this should be included in the answer). For a question to make someone look bad, it pretty much has to implicitly assert something; how can simply asking something make someone look bad? – Acccumulation Sep 28 '18 at 16:00
  • @Acccumulation Every cross examination of a witness in a court case. Lawyers constantly ask questions to which they already know the truthful answer, can disprove a dishonest answer, and ask the question specifically because the truthful answer helps paint the witness in a bad light (or otherwise debunks the witness' earlier claims). Yet their question cannot be loaded (since that would be overruled). OP is specifically focusing on a legal context so this example is definitely not just a fringe case. – Flater Sep 29 '18 at 6:57
  • @Flater Then it's not the question that is making the person look bad. But it is certainly possible that the OP was looking for a term for when a question is soliciting an answer that makes the person look bad. – Acccumulation Oct 1 '18 at 14:44
  • @Acccumulation: That is exactly what OP is looking for. You've just proved my point. What OP is looking for ("a question soliciting an answer that makes the person look bad") is not a loaded question ("A loaded question is one that [..] asserts something"). While a loaded question can be used for the same intention (making a person look bad), it does so in a completely different way (asserting something, as opposed to simply having the truthful answer suffice to make the person look bad). – Flater Oct 2 '18 at 6:45
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In a legal setting you might mean: Leading the witness or a leading question.

It has a legal definition (from US Legal):

Leading the witness is the method of questioning a witness by which s/he is directed to answer them in the way expected by the attorney. The query suggests to the witness how it is to be answered or puts words into the mouth of the witness. In such questioning the answers will be apparent in the questions itself. Leading questions should not be used on the direct examination of a witness unless necessary to develop the person's testimony. Leading questions are proper in cross-examination or allowed if a witness is declared by the judge to be a hostile or adverse witness.

This is a phrase used in courtrooms and so strongly fits with that requirement. A leading question is intended to get an answer that is in the questioners favour, hence it may make the answerer or someone else attached to the case "look bad". In a courtroom setting, there won't be questions completely out of context, but a leading question may be unexpected.

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    This answer does not fit OP's question. Leading the witness is asking a question so that the answerer can infer the correct answer from the question's phrasing. OP is asking about a question that is asked to reveal something about the answerer. While the asker of the question will most definitely already know the answer will put the answerer in a bad light, that doesn't inherently mean that the asker is leading the actual question. – Flater Sep 28 '18 at 10:40
  • @Flater, thanks for the feedback. I've edited to add details of why my answer fits 2 out of the 3 requirements in the question. I don't have a better one that fits all 3 requirements, but I'll upvote anyone who does! – Pam Sep 28 '18 at 10:58
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You may be thinking of the term

Gotcha question

A question posed by a reporter in an effort to trick a politician into looking stupid or saying something damaging.

https://politicaldictionary.com/words/gotcha-question/

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    That’s a good suggestion in casual, spoken English, but the OP is looking for a more formal legal term. – Davislor Sep 28 '18 at 16:06
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    @Davislor OP said he thinks it is a legal term, not that a legal term is what he is looking for. – Kevin Sep 28 '18 at 16:14
  • Okay, but they should be aware that it’s an informal term associated with politics, not law. On the other hand, it does specifically refer to trying to make the person being questioned look bad, and “loaded” or “leading” questions could be tendentious in some other way. – Davislor Sep 28 '18 at 16:17
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In Texas, we call a loaded question a Trick Bag. The unwitting victim is asked a question like "Are you still a member of the communist party?" This is the Trick Bag. Any answer you give is "jumping into the Trick Bag".

Consider the question Dick Durbin asked Judge Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearing for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court:

Would you welcome an FBI investigation into the sexual assault allegations?

No matter how Kavanaugh answers the question, the answer can be used against him.

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    This is not the time nor the place. Let's keep American politics out of this, please. By all means post a question stating your views on SE.Politics. – Mari-Lou A Sep 28 '18 at 17:57
  • There is a difference between questions where the true yes/no answer is unpleasant (does this make me look fat?) vs questions where there is no true yes/no answer but it's phrased as a yes/no question (do you still beat your wife?). – user3067860 Sep 28 '18 at 20:46
  • The answer box is reserved for boring (or not-so-boring, depending on your interest), expert-level true facts about the English language. But Politics SE "is for objective questions about governments, policies and political processes. It is not a place to advance opinions or debate." That is probably a true characterization of any site in the SE network. Your answer will be lightly edited. – MetaEd Sep 28 '18 at 20:46
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    @MetaEd lightly edited? Completely reworded the last paragraph and significantly changed the tone more likely. – Mari-Lou A Sep 28 '18 at 21:20
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    @Mari-LouA Lightly edited, yes. The answer and the example (Kavanaugh) are the same, just less partisanship. If I have changed the answer itself I very much want the author to correct me. – MetaEd Sep 29 '18 at 0:04
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You might try, “trick question” or “hostile questioning.” Hostile is more about the tone or intent; a trick question is more about cleverly posing a question with no good answer.

Other words for unpleasant, relentless questioning are badgering, haranguing, berating or hectoring—although those all connote rudeness and anger, while a trick question is more often outwardly polite.

Tommy Tran’s suggestion, “loaded question,” and Pam’s suggestion, “leading question,” are both good. “Leading question” is more likely to be used in a courtroom, but it also has a more specific meaning as legal jargon than in everyday speech. If I complain, “That’s a loaded question,” I’m accusing the other person of trying to imply something he or she is not willing to say directly. If I complain, “That’s a leading question,” I’m accusing the other person of trying to make me say what he or she wants, or put words in my mouth. Neither refer only to trying to make the person being questioned look bad; a lawyer coaching me to sound good or stick to my story might be told to stop “leading the witness,” or a question might be “loaded” with the implication that someone else is bad or wonderful.

Another related legal term is “complex question,” although unlike the previous two, this isn’t a term in common use. It means that a question presupposes something false. The classic example is, “Have you stopped beating your wife?” (Especially in a context where a witness is only allowed to answer “Yes” or “No.”) This has an even more obscure Latin name.

The word “abuse,” as in “abusive question” or “abusing the witness,” is the closest piece of legal jargon but has become obsolete; the word means something more violent today.

Another related legal term is “perjury trap,” where a prosecutor or investigator asks a suspect about some wrongdoing and you’re in trouble no matter what you say. If you confess, you’re guilty. If you deny it and they think you’re lying, they can indict you for that. If you refuse to answer on the grounds that it may incriminate you, that makes you look suspicious.

As a literary example, you might look at Mark 12:13. A few traditionalists familiar with the King James Version might recognize the obsolete turn of phrase, “to catch him in his words,” but modern translations say something like, “to trap him in a statement” or “to trap him by what he said.” This meant very politely asking for a yes-or-no answer to a question that sounded reasonable on its face, but where any straight answer would get you in trouble with somebody.

Mathematics has “coffin” or “killer” (in the past, when they were used to keep Jewish students out, sometimes called “Jewish”) questions:

The Mathematics Department of Moscow State University, the most prestigious mathematics school in Russia, had at that time been actively trying to keep Jewish students (and other "undesirables") from enrolling in the department. One of the methods they used for doing this was to give the unwanted students a different set of problems on their oral exam. These problems were carefully designed to have elementary solutions (so that the Department could avoid scandals) that were nearly impossible to find. Any student who failed to answer could be easily rejected, so this system was an effective method of controlling admissions. These kinds of math problems were informally referred to as "coffins". "Coffins" is the literal translation from Russian; in English these problems are sometimes called "killer" problems.

1

Calumny

a misrepresentation intended to harm another's reputation

seems close, but does not really fit that it has nothing to do with the subject at hand

Detraction also comes to mind

a lessening of reputation or esteem especially by envious, malicious, or petty criticism

The difference between the two is that calumny is a false statement but detraction is a true statement, just one that is not generally known.

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Directly relevant is the logical fallacy of "begging the question", or Latin petitio principii, or original Greek attributed to Aristotle, "τὸ ἐξ ἀρχῆς". This may not imply a specific intent to make the addressee look bad, but that is often an intent or outcome of such fallacious questioning or reasoning. I don't have information about use of the term in courts per se, but in academia, especially in the subjects of logic and philosophy, its use is common.

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    "Begging the question" is a tactic of the answerer, not the questioner - it's a type of circular reasoning. Q:"Why do you say your product is the best?" A:"Because it's better than all the others." Q:"In what way is it better?" A:"It's the best." Obviously this example has been simplified to the point of absurdity, but this tactic is very very common - which is why I hate hearing people misuse the phrase "begging the question". If we forget the name of the tactic, we risk losing the ability to recognize it. – MT_Head Sep 28 '18 at 16:20

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