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Gaslighting: The Word of the Year

Gas lights gaslighting
Gas lights. Credit: Public Domain

Merriam Webster Dictionary has made it official. Gaslighting is their 2022 word of the year. The choice is understandable, given its frequent use in the news as well as on social media.

The expression actually first came into use in 1944, but was taken up again in 1996 when M.D. Theo L. Dorpat published Gaslighting, the Double Whammy, Interrogation and Other Methods of Covert Control in Psychotherapy and Analysis. What Dorpat was referring to solely concerned patients and therapists.

In his words, when it comes to interaction between the two, “Therapists may contribute to the victim’s distress through mislabeling the [victim’s] reactions…The gaslighting behaviors of the spouse provide a recipe for the so-called ‘nervous breakdown’ for some [victims, and] suicide in some of the worst situations.”

The term “gaslighting” is, however, used in many fields, including in popular culture, medicine, politics, philosophy, amateur psychology, and self-help books.

This is perhaps because they believe it mirrors the social ‘angst’ currently characterizing the ‘Zeitgeist,’ or spirit, of the last decade. It is something that doctors, media, politicians, philosophers, amateur psychologists, and self-help authors as well as the modern generation find all too pervasive in the society in which we live.

What is it, and why has it become so popular?

As Merriam-Webster defines it, gaslighting refers to the:

…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. [It is the] act or practice of grossly misleading someone especially for one’s own advantage.

In an exclusive interview with AP News, the dictionary’s editor-at-large, Peter Sokolowski, said they chose it for a single reason.

“It’s a word that has risen so quickly in the English language, and especially in the last four years,” he said. “It’s a word looked up frequently every single day of the year.”

Moreover, it has exceeded the boundaries of the personal and penetrated into the social, political, and relational spheres. That is why there are currently so many theories and discussions about it. In the end, however, it is all about dominance of one person over another.

Explaining the concept in social and psychological terms

Recently, Collins English Dictionary announced that ‘permacrisis’ was their choice for 2022. In 2020, the expression ‘pandemic’ became the one that most rolled off people’s tongues. That trod behind the phrase ‘toxic,’ which the Oxford English Dictionary deemed to be the one ‘en rigeur,’ meaning the most used, in 2018. What they all have in common with ‘gaslighting’ is the feeling of a loss of control.

According to George K. Simon, the author of In Sheep’s Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People, gaslighting refers to “playing the victim role: Manipulator portrays him- or herself as a victim of circumstance or of someone else’s behavior in order to gain pity, sympathy or evoke compassion and thereby get something from another.”

Simon writes that “caring and conscientious people cannot stand to see anyone suffering and the manipulator often finds it easy to play on sympathy to get cooperation.”

In Soul Rescue: How to Break Free From Narcissistic Abuse & Heal Trauma, Dana Arcuri, a certified trauma recovery coach, says “gaslighting causes us to doubt our own memories, perceptions, and judgments. It throws us psychologically off balance. It’s like being in the Twilight Zone. If you feel as though your self-esteem, confidence, and dignity has withered under the flame of gaslighting, you are not alone.”

Gaslighting. Credit: Nami Oklahoma / Twitter

In a book about the influences of cults, Amanda Montell, author of Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism writes that “when language works to make you question your own perceptions, whether at work or at church, that’s a form of gaslighting.”

“I first came across the term ‘gaslighting’ in the context of abusive romantic partners, but it shows up in larger-scale relationships, too, like those between bosses and their employees, politicians and their supporters, spiritual leaders and their devotees,” Montell maintains.

“Across the board,” she says, “gaslighting is a way of psychologically manipulating someone (or many people) such that they doubt their own reality, as a way to gain and maintain control.”

Those are but a few of the explanations on Goodreads for “gaslighting.”

An old word made new again

Many think of gaslighting as a new word. In actuality, it is an old term, and the expression dates back to 1944.

The word actually originates from a play of the same name written in 1938 by Patrick Hamilton. The play was then re-produced into a Hollywood film starring Angela Lansbury and Ingrid Bergman. Currently, the word “gaslighting” is used in much the same way as it was in the past.

Both were based on the same storyline::  a woman psychologically manipulated by her husband. Paula (Ingrid Bergman) falls in love with and marries a man called Gregory who slowly and insidiously drives his wife to question herself and her own reasoning.

The 1940 film Gaslight starring Ingrid Bergman
The 1940 film ‘Gaslight,’ starring Ingrid Bergman. Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

He does so through suggestion and mental manipulative agility. First, he reprimands her for always ‘over-reacting.’ Second, he  chides her for supposedly being ‘forgetful.’ Third, he accuses her of being a kleptomaniac. Lastly, he isolates her from the world by insisting that she is too mentally ill to be seen in public.

It was all a ruse, of course. As it turns out, Gregory only married Paula to gain entry to her aunt’s house in which they lived. His goal was to find a horde of hidden jewels that had once belonged to her mother’s sister. The only way he could do so was to drive his newly-wife mad, giving him sole ownership of everything.

It all worked out for Paula in the end. She found a new love with a policeman named Cameron, recuperated her sanity, and found the hidden jewels.


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