By Curtis Honeycutt
The folks over at Merriam-Webster are at it again. They are claiming that the Word of the Year 2022 is “gaslighting.” That is so typical of them. They can believe that if they want to, I guess.
According to their version of reality, Merriam-Webster defines gaslighting as “the act or practice of grossly misleading someone, especially for one’s own advantage.” That may be true for them, but I heard they’re all off their rockers.
If you haven’t picked up on it yet, ol’ Grammar Guy has been employing gaslighting in the first two paragraphs of this column. My passive-aggressive, flippant, subjective treatment of truth makes it sound like Merriam-Webster is full of morons, and I’m actually a better judge of words than they are.
Although gaslighting can be thrown around as a catch-all buzzword for being untruthful or generally passive-aggressive, it has a more nuanced, precise function. Whether you see gaslighting in a personal or political context, it is a way to manipulate someone into questioning their reality. This form of psychological manipulation ranges from mean and selfish to downright cruel and malevolent.
The term “gaslighting” comes from a 1938 play called “Gas Light” by British novelist and playwright Patrick Hamilton. In the play, a man tries to convince his wife that she is becoming insane. He blames her for the belongings disappearing, although he is secretly hiding them.
Additionally, the husband is searching for some hidden jewels in the attic late at night. As he turns on the gas-fueled lights in the attic, the lights in the rest of the house dim. The husband convinces his wife that she is merely imagining things. “Gas Light” was adapted into a 1944 film called “Gaslight” (all one word). I find it interesting that the term “gas light” quickly evolved into a verb.
According to Merriam-Webster, gaslighting had a 1740% increase in web searches for the term this year. What is it that has made gaslighting emerge as such a common word in our cultural vernacular?
Many attribute the rise of gaslighting to former president Donald Trump’s claims that often did not line up with reality. President Trump’s advisor Kellyanne Conway famously referred to the then White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s multiple false claims about the 2017 presidential inauguration as “alternative facts.”
This subjectification of measurable truth and confirmable facts in order to gain power, reputation or favorable optics is a great example of gaslighting. We saw this with scientific facts being questioned during the Covid-19 pandemic as well. Now U.S. politics and cultural wedge issues are riddled with gaslighting – facts be damned.