Monday, April 11, 2022

What is "gaslighting" really?

The word "gaslighting" tends to get thrown around quite a lot in modern millennial-speak, and particularly in the popular press. But it's one of several words that have been so overused and misused that they have lost much of their original meaning and impact (think "woke", for example).

The word "gaslighting" began to be used after a 1938 British play called Gas Light, and the 1944 American movie of the same play. In this story, a man pursues a concerted campaign of playing tricks on his wife, hoping to send her mad and institutionalized, and thereby get his hands on her money. However, the woman eventually realizes that her husband is not really leaving the house when he says he is, due to the flickering of the gaslight on the wall, and so she uncovers his subterfuge.

The word began to be quite widely used to describe a process of psychological manipulation over the ensuing years, but it fell into disuse after the 1960s (maybe when the play and movie also fell out of currency). However, it experienced a strong renaissance in the 2010s and 2020s, particularly in relation to the #MeToo campaign and in relation to the machinations of Donald Trump. As happens so often, the more it was used, the more loosely and inaccurately it was used.

One sociolinguist has defined gaslighting as "A form of conscious or subconscious psychological manipulation mediated through language or the actions of a speaker with a perceived higher status that has the effect of invalidating or denying the interlocutor's reality or lived experience in an interaction or interactions, with the impact of discrediting them within a micro or macro context". It's a good comprehensive definition, but a bit wordy for most purposes. The essence of the term is captured by "the methodical manipulation of someone with less power into questioning their own perception of reality" (note that the differential in power or influence is an important element of the definition).

So, now you can see how that might apply in the case of sexual abuse, or the daily tweets of Donald Trump. And now we have no excuse to misuse such a useful word.


"Gaslighting" became Merriam-Websters Dictionarys word of the year for 2022. In a world of deep fakes and fake news, look-ups of the word apparently increases by 1,740% over the previous year. Interestingly, it was not just one single event or news item that caused the spike, as usually happens, but a pervasive global interest relating to many different events. The Zeitgeist, you might say.

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