Gaslighting — a word that describes behavior that manipulates the mind, is misleading, and downright deceitful — is the word of the year in the Merriam-Webster dictionary.
Searches for the word on merriam-webster.com are up 1,740% in 2022 over the previous year. But something else happened that made it word of the year. There was not a single event that caused significant spikes in searches, as usual with the chosen word.
The gaslighting was ubiquitous.
“It’s a word that has emerged 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,” Merriam-Webster editor-in-chief Peter Sokolowski said in an interview with The Associated Press ahead of Monday’s reveal.
“It was a word that was often looked up every day of the year,” he said.
In 2022 there were deepfakes and the dark web. There were deep states and fake news. And there was a lot of trolling.
“In this age of disinformation — of ‘fake news,’ conspiracy theories, Twitter trolls and deepfakes — gaslighting has emerged as a word for our times,” said Merriam-Webster’s announcement.
The top American dictionary definition of gaslighting is the psychological manipulation of a person, usually over an extended period of time, that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perceptions of reality, or memories and usually leads to confusion, loss of self-confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty about one’s emotional or mental stability, and dependence on the perpetrator”.
— Merriam-Webster (@MerriamWebster) November 28, 2022
More generally, the dictionary defines the word this way: “The act or practice of grossly deceiving someone, especially for one’s own benefit.”
Gaslighting is a tool often used by abusers in relationships — and by some politicians and other newsmakers. It can happen between romantic partners, within a family, and among friends. It could be a company tactic or a way to mislead the public. There’s also “medical gaslighting,” when a healthcare provider dismisses a patient’s symptoms or illness as “all in your head.”
Despite its relatively recent fame — including “Gaslighter,” The Chicks’ 2020 album, with the thrillingly angry title single — the word was brought to life more than 80 years ago with Gas Light, a 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton.
It spawned two film adaptations in the 1940s. One, George Cukor’s Gaslight in 1944, starred Ingrid Bergman as Paula Alquist and Charles Boyer as Gregory Anton. The two marry after a whirlwind romance, and Anton proves to be a champion gaslighter. Among other things, he insists that her complaints about the constant dimming of the gaslights in their London mansion are a figment of her troubled mind. It wasn’t.
Angela Lansbury’s death in October sparked some interest in searches for the word, Sokolowski said. She played Nancy Oliver, a maid hired by Anton and told not to bother his “uptight” wife.
The term gaslighting was later used by mental health practitioners to clinically describe a form of prolonged coercive control in abusive relationships.
“There’s this implication of a deliberate deception,” Sokolowski said. “And once you’re aware of that deception, it’s not just a lie, as in, you know, I didn’t eat the cookies in the cookie jar. It’s something that has a little more crafty quality to it. It may have an idea of a strategy or a long-term plan.”
Merriam-Webster, which records 100 million page views per month on its site, chooses its word of the year based solely on data. Sokolowski and his team strip down evergreen words that are most frequently looked up to gauge which word has taken a significant bump in the past year.
They don’t slice and dice why people look up words, which can be anything from quick spell and definition checks to some kind of attempt at inspiration or motivation. Some people who looked up gaslighting this year may have just wanted to know if it’s one or two words or if it’s a hyphen.
Gaslighting, Sokolowski said, spent all of 2022 in the top 50 looked-up words on merriam-webster.com to earn word of the year status. Last year’s choice was to vaccinate. Rounding out the top 10 this year are:
– oligarch, driven by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
– Omicron, the persistent COVID-19 variant and the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet.
– codify, such as when transposing abortion rights into federal law.
– queen consort, as King Charles’s wife, Camilla, has recently become known.
– raid, such as the search of former President Donald Trump’s home in Mar-a-Lago.
— conscious, with Google searches poking fun at the engineer who claimed an unreleased AI system had become sentient.
– cancel culture. Enough said.
– LGBTQIA for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questions, intersex and asexual, aromantic or agender.
—loamy, which many Wordle users tried in August, though the correct word that day was clown.