Merriam-Webster wasn’t gaslighting you by announcing on November 28 that their Word of the Year for 2022 is indeed “gaslighting.” Nah, this much is true, in the words of Spandau Ballet. The dictionary didn’t just make this word or news up “just to mess with you,” as the following tweet from the dictionary indicated:
Well, to be completely truthful, the dictionary itself didn’t tweet anything. Rather the tweet came from a real human being who’s handling the dictionary’s Twitter account. After all, dictionaries themselves don’t have mouths and fingers. They don’t have blue verified check marks on Twitter because they don’t themselves have wallets to pay Twitter $8. And dictionaries themselves don’t tend to communicate directly with you. Or do they?
Regardless, folks, “gaslighting” is a real word, a little too real. Looks 2022 has seen a 1740% jump in people searching for “gaslighting” on Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary this year compared to the year prior. That’s probably because many people—and get ready for this big revelation—lie to get what they want. And they can lie and lie and lie and lie. They can lie about lying too. In fact, some people can lie so often that you end up having trouble figuring out what is actually true or not, sort of like trying to find a condom in a sea of balloons. It’s not unusual for some people to twist the truth so much that they’ve become essentially a truth Cuisinart.
Now, you may wonder what the words “gas” and “light” have to do with “lying” except when you lie that you weren’t the one who farted in the dark. Well, “gaslighting” doesn’t have anything to do with real gasoline or putting a cigarette lighter near your butt when you fart. Instead, Merriam-Webster defines the word 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.” That’s dark. Real dark. In other words, when someone gaslights you, he or she continues to throw falsehoods at you in order to manipulate you to the point where you may even question your own judgement, reality, sanity.
Although gaslighting does involve lying, the two are not necessarily the same. Lying is when you deliberately make untrue statements or create misleading impressions. It can be a one-time, isolated thing such as when you deny that you’ve ever read the book Fifty Shades of Grey when the book drops out of your fanny pack. Lying may not always be harmful such as when you tell your significant other that you couldn’t possibly ever imagine yourself with someone else, when you should have said that for the past 10 minutes you didn’t imagine yourself with someone else. Lying becomes gaslighting when it is part of a larger, longer-term plan with the goal of grossly mislead someone, as opposed to appropriately misleading someone.
Someone can use gaslighting to either maintain power over others or wrest power from them. An example of gaslighting is when the head of a department bullies and harasses you at work while, at the same time, tries to make it seem like you are the person who is being difficult. Another example is when a colleague ousts you out of a role by convincing everyone that you’ve somehow been trying to oust him or her. Gaslighting can occur in healthcare settings too when a healthcare professional convinces a patient that he or she does or doesn’t have illness when the opposite is true. That patient may start believing that he or she is “crazy.” Then there’s the gaslighting that occurs in personal relationships when, for example, one person endeavors to keep the other disoriented and, in turn, under control.
It was a fictional personal relationship that gave birth to the term gaslighting. A play named Gas Light debuted in 1938 and was set in London, UK, circa 1880. It featured an overbearing man, Jack, and his wife, Bella. Jack was not a nice guy. Throughout the story, he tried to manipulate Bella so that she became convinced that she was going insane. For example, when Jack was messing around in the attic of their house doing something mysterious, the gas lights throughout the house began to dim. Rather than admit what he was doing, Jack instead claimed that Bella was imagining things. That kind of brought new meaning to the wedding vows “to have and to hold from this day forward.”
This story hit the big screen subsequently in the form of two movies with the name Gaslight, a British film in 1940 and an American one in 1944. Unlike the name of the original play, the names of both movies didn’t have a space between “Gas” and “Light,” just in case you thought you were seeing things. Here’s a clip from the 1944 American movie starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman:
The names of the characters changed but the principles were the same.
Gaslighting can exist on a massive scale. Think about all the mass manipulation that has been present on social media, in the political world, and elsewhere in society in recent years. For example, what about the politician who labels a newspaper article as “fake news” when all that article did was include some nasty truths about him? Or what about all those folks trying to push up sales of their bogus remedies by attempting to discredit real scientists, scientific studies, and treatments that are actually backed by real scientific evidence? Then there are those who try to control your thoughts by spreading conspiracy theories claiming that others such as the government, the media, or medical profession are, guess what, trying to control you.
There’s even a link between the Merriam Webster’s 2022 Word of the Year and their 2021 Word of the Year, “vaccine,” which I covered last year for Forbes. Politicians, personalities, peddlers of bogus treatments, and perpetually multiplying anonymous social media accounts have been using a whole lot of gaslighting in attempts to demonize medical, scientific, and public health experts for spreading scientific facts about vaccines and trying to help people. Gaslighting techniques have included claiming that such experts are shills of pharmaceutical companies (when they are not) or members of the Deep State, whatever that may be.
With so much gaslighting around, it’s not surprising that the word gaslighting is being used so frequently. Sure there are words like “falsehoods”, “untruths”, “deceit”, “prevarication”, “fibbing”, and “dissembling” but such words don’t capture the totality, the deliberateness, and darkness of gaslighting. Plus, “dissembling” sounds more like taking apart IKEA furniture in the wrong manner.
Of course, gaslighting wasn’t the only popular word in 2022. To win the Merriam Webster Word of the Year, the word had to beat out some other worthy contenders. For example, look-ups of the word “oligarch” jumped by 621% in early March soon after Russia had invaded the Ukraine and Russian oligarchs had taken it up their assets as a result. Then there were the spikes in people looking up the word “Omicron.” Gee, wonder why people were searching for the word “Omicron?” The word “sentient” also was popular with 480% more attention this year, although it probably didn’t have anything to do with Donald Trump’s hair. By contrast, the 970% increase in “raid” looks-ups in early August was likely related to what happed at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s resort home. No, it didn’t mean that Mar-a-Lago had cockroaches, and lots of Raid Ant & Roach Killer was used. That was around the time that the FBI raided Mar-a-Lago for documents that Trump had allegedly taken from the White House.
Nevertheless, “raid” apparently didn’t muster enough attention to overtake “gaslighting” as the 2022 Word of the Year. You could accept this result. Or you could claim to everyone that the system was rigged and refuse to accept the possibility that a word potentially associated with Trump didn’t win the top spot. But then that could be gaslighting, right?