“Gaslighting” is Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year for 2022. Or is it?
Defined as “the act or practice of grossly misleading someone, especially for one’s own advantage,” the term has been around for more than 80 years. But it took on special attention in the last year.
No specific news event drove interest in using gaslighting in conversation — unlike last year’s Word of the Year, “vaccine.” But searches for “gaslighting” on merriam-webster.com still increased 1740% this year, with high interest throughout the year, the Springfield, Massachusetts-based dictionary company said.
“It’s a word that has risen so quickly in the English language, and especially in the last four years, that it actually came as a surprise to me and to many of us,” said Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster’s editor at large, in an interview with The Associated Press.
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The word originates from “Gas Light,” a 1938 play and subsequent movie, in which a man attempts to convince his wife that she is going insane — that the lights in their home are not dimming, despite her accurate perceptions that they are.
In recent years, gaslighting has come to describe a similar deception of misleading someone for personal gain, but with the connotation of distorting reality or a past experience.
In a September hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney accused oil companies of “‘gaslighting’ the public” by using “misleading PR tactics” to spin the industry’s connection to climate change.
The New York Times, in a March report, used the phrase “medical gaslighting” to describe a tendency of medical providers to downplay or dismiss some patients’ symptoms.
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Merriam-Webster noted the difference between gaslighting and the plethora of similar terms somewhat synonymous with “lying.”
Lying tends to describe interactions between individuals. Fraud denotes institutional lying involving organizations. There is also “falsehood,” “untruth,” “deceitfulness” and “disinformation.” But gaslighting “applies in both personal and political contexts,” the dictionary said.
“There is this implication of an intentional deception,” Sokolowski said. “And once one is aware of that deception, it’s not just a straightforward lie, as in, you know, I didn’t eat the cookies in the cookie jar. It’s something that has a little bit more devious quality to it. It has possibly an idea of strategy or a long-term plan.”