Merriam-Webster’s word of the year – and this you can believe – is “gaslighting.”
The online dictionary chose “gaslighting,” which it defines as “the act or practice of grossly misleading someone especially for one’s own advantage,” as its top word of 2022 because it has become the “favored word for the perception of deception.”
Gaslighting is usually more complex than an off-the-cuff lie and more nefarious, too: Gaslighting someone into believing they’re wrong is often part of a “larger plan,” said Merriam-Webster.
The term “gaslighting” encapsulates some of the other common terms we associate with misinformation – “deepfakes” and “fake news” among them, per Merriam-Webster.
How we first got gaslit
We owe the term “gaslighting” to the 1938 play and 1944 film “Gaslight” (itself a remake of a film from 1940). In both, a nefarious man attempts to trick his new wife into thinking she’s losing her mind, in part by telling her that the gaslights in their home, which dim when he’s in the attic doing dastardly deeds, are not fading at all.
Both the play and film were wildly popular, with a renamed version of the play running for more than 1,000 performances on Broadway, and the 1944 film earning a best picture nomination and an Oscar for Ingrid Bergman. Partly due to the film’s popularity, the noun “gaslight” became a verb, too.
In the context of the film, “gaslighting” refers to the “psychological manipulation of a person over an extended period of time that causes the victim to question” their reality, according to Merriam-Webster.
Gaslighting in politics, media and entertainment
“Gaslighting” has in the last few years become a ubiquitous term, particularly in the “age of misinformation,” Merriam-Webster said. In 2017, a CNN opinion writer said President Donald Trump was “‘gaslighting’ all of us” after he denied making several statements he’d made in public. CNN’s Chris Cillizza used the word again in 2021 to describe the way Trump downplayed the severity of the January 6 insurrection.
It’s also a legitimate and “extremely effective form of emotional abuse,” according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, which has resources for survivors on recognizing gaslighting. The New York Times also this year wrote about “medical gaslighting,” when patients, especially women and people of color, are dismissed by physicians who downplay the severity of their symptoms.
This year in particular, interest in the word “gaslighting” has surged, per Merriam-Webster, with a 1740% increase in searches for the term.
The word continued making its way into popular media this year: “Gaslit” is the name of a limited series starring Julia Roberts set during the Watergate scandal of the ’70s. The young, rich cast of “Bodies, Bodies, Bodies” accuse each other of gaslighting when tensions run high. HBO’s “The White Lotus,” as well as recent film “Don’t Worry Darling” (both properties of CNN parent company Warner Bros. Discovery) also feature characters gaslighting each other.
While other commonly searched words, including “omicron” and “queen consort,” reflect specific events or episodes of 2022, “gaslighting” refers to a phenomenon that isn’t fleeting but rather an ingrained part of our lives, per Merriam-Webster.