It was a year of gaslighting.
People suffering from long Covid took up the term “medical gaslighting” to describe the medical establishment’s inappropriate dismissal of their symptoms. Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney declared in a September statement that “Big Oil is ‘gaslighting’ the public.” The word can also be used to describe individuals across contexts, from romantic partners to politicians.
Maybe that’s why Merriam-Webster saw a staggering 1,740 percent increase in searches for “gaslighting” in its online dictionary in 2022. Interest in the word was sustained throughout the entire year: Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster’s editor at large, tells Leanne Italie of the Associated Press (AP) that the word stayed in Merriam-Webster’s top 50 list of most-searched words for all of 2022.
Informed by those impressive statistics, Merriam-Webster has designated “gaslighting” as its official word of the year.
The dictionary offers two definitions for the term. The first describes it as “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.”
The second, a bit more succinct, defines “gaslighting” as “the act or practice of grossly misleading someone especially for one’s own advantage.”
Though the inescapable presence of “gaslighting” in the zeitgeist is a recent phenomenon, the term itself dates back to Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play Gas Light. The thriller follows a man named Jack, who becomes intent on convincing his wife, Bella, that she’s going insane. When Bella complains that the gas light in their house is dimming, Jack assures her that it’s all in her head. (Spoiler alert: It’s not.)
In the years that followed, the play was adapted twice for the big screen. The 1944 adaptation, Gaslight, stars Ingrid Bergman as the mistreated wife and Charles Boyer as the master manipulator—or gaslighter, as he might be called today.
Per the AP, Merriam-Webster chooses its word of the year “based solely on data.” Sokolowski and his team comb through a given year’s most-searched words, removing more timeless “evergreen words.” In 2020, the word of the year was “pandemic.” Last year’s word was “vaccine.”
After “gaslighting,” Merriam-Webster’s top-ten picks include “oligarch,” “omicron,” “codify,” “LGBTQIA,” “sentient,” “raid,” “queen consort” and “loamy,” which spiked when it became one of the answers to Quordle, a spin-off of the popular game Wordle.