What gaslighting as Word of the Year says about us

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On Nov. 28, Merriam-Webster announced “gaslighting” as the 2022 Word of the Year. The dictionary defines gaslighting as “the act or practice of grossly misleading someone especially for one’s own advantage” and the word had a 1,740 percent increase in lookups this year.

The word originates from a 1938 play called “Gas Light.” In the story, a man tries to make his wife believe she is going insane, and his attempt includes activities in the attic which cause their house’s gas lights to dim. While the house’s lights do in fact dim, the man insists the lights are not dimming, and that his wife’s own perceptions are wrong.

However, most people (including myself) recognize gaslighting from the ever-popular mantra: gaslight, gatekeep, girlboss. This mantra — which was originally a caricature of the phrase “live, laugh, love” — spread on Tumblr with many people connecting instances of gaslighting, gatekeeping, and girlbossing in media like “Gone Girl.” Although, lately, some of its most ironic usage refers to when people, often women, seek to do something cool or just out of pocket.

But, gaslighting is much more somber than that. As author Judi Ketteler describes, “Today, gaslighting can mean everything from being dismissive of someone’s feelings and experiences to conducting a large-scale psychological manipulation that makes people question what they know to be true.”

When I heard Merriam-Webster’s announcement, I was, at first, enraptured in the comedy of a pop-culture, satirical phrase being proclaimed the word of the year. However, as the idea settled with me, I was overcome with a kind of sadness. Today, many of us are surrounded by disillusionment with crises being exposed everyday, coming to grips with the ever-looming destruction of the planet, and rampant misinformation online. Gaslighting is unfortunately not just a funny meme term, but rather ingrained into how information is disseminated today.

Gaslighting is actually a tool often used by abusers, some more malicious political efforts, corporations who seek to mislead the public, and healthcare professionals who overlook symptoms as exaggerated or irrational — to name a few. It is especially pervasive online where misinformation and abused comment sections often mesh in such a way that psychologically manipulates viewers. The fact that gaslighting was among the most searched words of 2022 speaks volumes of where we are today.

However, the good news is that as people become more aware of what gaslighting is, they can identify it. This hopefully means people advocate for what they know to be true and are able to think more critically about the information they receive and the discussions they have.

Our words say so much about us, and while gaslighting can be ironic, it is also a deeply destructive tool. But, maybe as we go into 2023 with an understanding of the word, we will be able to trust our senses and intuition in a way that makes our world a slightly more bearable place to live.