Merriam-Webster Word of the Year 2022: ‘Gaslighting’

gaslighting / gas·​light·​ing / gas-ˌlī-tiŋ

In this age of misinformation—of “fake news,” conspiracy theories, Twitter trolls, and deepfakes—gaslighting has emerged as a word for our time.

A driver of disorientation and mistrust, gaslighting is “the act or practice of grossly misleading someone especially for one’s own advantage.” 2022 saw a 1740% increase in lookups for gaslighting, with high interest throughout the year.

Its origins are colorful: the term comes from the title of a 1938 play and the movie based on that play, the plot of which involves a man attempting to make his wife believe that she is going insane. His mysterious activities in the attic cause the house’s gas lights to dim, but he insists to his wife that the lights are not dimming and that she can’t trust her own perceptions.

When gaslighting was first used in the mid 20th century it referred to a kind of deception like that in the movie. We define this use as:

: psychological manipulation of a person usually over an extended period of time that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories and typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty of one’s emotional or mental stability, and a dependency on the perpetrator

But in recent years, we have seen the meaning of gaslighting refer also to something simpler and broader: “the act or practice of grossly misleading someone, especially for a personal advantage.” In this use, the word is at home with other terms relating to modern forms of deception and manipulation, such as fake news, deepfake, and artificial intelligence.

The idea of a deliberate conspiracy to mislead has made gaslighting useful in describing lies that are part of a larger plan. Unlike lying, which tends to be between individuals, and fraud, which tends to involve organizations, gaslighting applies in both personal and political contexts. It’s at home in formal and technical writing as well as in colloquial use:

Patients who have felt that their symptoms were inappropriately dismissed as minor or primarily psychological by doctors are using the term “medical gaslighting” to describe their experiences and sharing their stories.— The New York Times, 28 March 2022

The “I’m sorry you feel that way” approach, along with avoiding an argument in lieu of admitting fault, is good old fashioned gaslighting. — Psychology Today, 29 March 2022

My Committee’s investigation leaves no doubt that, in the words of one company official, Big Oil is ‘gaslighting’ the public. These companies claim they are part of the solution to climate change, but internal documents reveal that they are continuing with business as usual. — Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, Chairwoman of the Committee on Oversight and Reform, 14 September 2022

After their fight awkwardly cleared the daybed, the two parted ways and Genevieve caught Victoria up on the unexpected blowout. “He told me I’m gaslighting him. I’ve never even been told that in my life,” Gen said. “Yeah that’s a big word to use… He doesn’t know what that means. He’s just using a buzzword, he’s stupid. He’s dumb,” Victoria replied. — Nicole Gallucci, Decider (decider.com), 2 November 2022

English has plenty of ways to say “lie,” from neutral terms like falsehood and untruth to the straightforward deceitfulness and the formally euphemistic prevarication and dissemble, to the innocuous-sounding fib. And the Cold War brought us the espionage-tinged disinformation.

In recent years, with the vast increase in channels and technologies used to mislead, gaslighting has become the favored word for the perception of deception. This is why (trust us!) it has earned its place as our Word of the Year.

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