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Gaslighting: All you need to know about Merriam-Webster’s word of the year

Merriam-Webster dictionary said gaslighting saw a '1740% increase in lookups, with high interest throughout the year'. What is the origin of the word and in what contexts is it used?

According to Psychology Today, gaslighting is “a form of manipulation where targets are urged to doubt their memories, beliefs, feelings, or sanity.” (Representational/Thinkstock)

Picture this: You are about to confront someone about a wrong you are sure they have committed. You have run the potential conversation in your head, practised the beginning, middle and end. But no sooner do you bring the matter up than they fly off the handle and launch into a barrage of defences, so convincing that you are led to believe it was you who misunderstood them. You end up apologising, they ‘forgive’ you, and you move on. What has happened here is that you have been subjected to “gaslighting” — Merriam-Webster dictionary’s word of the year.

What is gaslighting?

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines gaslighting 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.”

According to Psychology Today, gaslighting is “a form of manipulation where targets are urged to doubt their memories, beliefs, feelings, or sanity.”

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The dictionary’s reason to pick it as the word for 2022 is backed by hard data: “there was a 1740% increase in lookups for gaslighting, with high interest throughout the year.”

Sounds interesting, but where does this curious-sounding word come from?

The term comes from the title of a 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton, 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. But in recent years, according to the website, 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.”

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Cool, can you suggest some examples where I can use this word?

This simple example by Cambridge dictionary is sure to clear all your doubts.

“His gaslighting was a deliberate attempt to convince her that she was losing her grasp on reality”

What contexts is it used in?

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A person can be gaslit by anyone, and not just a romantic partner: A toxic friend, a controlling parent, a boss given to harassment. One can also be gaslit by a whole entity, and not just one individual. For example: “In the words of one company official, Big Oil is ‘gaslighting’ the public.” Or Medical gaslighting: When a doctor dismisses a patient’s health concerns without a proper diagnosis.

The word was invented in the 1930s. So, why has it assumed significance in 2022?

With the internet, and its side effects, permeating every aspect of modern life, gaslighting is relevant more than ever before. As Merriam-Webster puts it: “In this age of misinformation—of “fake news,” conspiracy theories, Twitter trolls, and deepfakes—gaslighting has emerged as a word for our time.”

Makes sense. What other words kept search engines busy this year?

Oligarch (in backdrop of Russian invasion of Ukraine), Omicron (the most widespread variant of Covid in 2022), Codify (not to be confused with coding), LGBTQIA, Sentient (think AI), Loamy (thanks, Wordle), Raid (sorry, Donald Trump) and Queen Consort (Camilla Parker) are other words that were most searched this year.

First published on: 01-12-2022 at 17:46 IST
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