While gaslighting is a very real form of abuse, it can become a catch-all term for any instance of manipulation.
On November 28 Merriam-Webster announced gaslighting as the word of the year. It’s defined as “the act or practice of grossly misleading someone, especially for one’s own advantage.”
Following the announcement, the conspicuous word saw a 1740% increase in look-ups, with high interest throughout the year. This isn’t surprising if we think about the number of times we see this word used in informal contexts: conversations with friends, discussions about deception, TV shows, movies, etc. However, gaslighting can capture so much meaning that it has also made its way into all sorts of contexts, including political rhetoric and the media.
The term was originally used in reference to a form of psychological manipulation in which one person causes another person question their own sanity. The term originated from the 1938 play titled “Gas Light”, which was adapted into the 1944 film Gaslight, in which a husband manipulates his wife into believing she is going insane. Today, the term is used to describe a wide range of manipulative behavior and forms of psychological abuse, often describing a situation in which a person is essentially made to doubt their perception and reality. Examples include the act of making subtle remarks that counter another person’s opinions and decisions in a way that incites confusion, to the more overt act of making someone believe that something didn’t happen when it actually did. It’s essentially lying– but even more psychologically disorienting.
So, how did gaslighting become such a cultural phenomenon? The evolution of its meaning and use is tied to society’s desire to find ways of expressing varied feelings of distrust, deception, and manipulation. Finding a word to describe the dismissal or denial of our feelings used to be a difficult task. “Manipulation” was too broad to suffice, and simply using “dismissal” didn’t encompass the innate abusive behavior of the perpetrator and the power dynamic that is at play. Now, having a term that describes that specific form of manipulation helps us identify the problem and call it by its name. The term started appearing more often in the media during the #MeToo movement, and it was quickly adopted by people who had long been wondering what to call what they, too, had experienced.
In a broader cultural context, our society has become more distrustful of once reputable institutions, media companies, and sources of information. “Gaslighting” has also become a popular word when describing any sort of perceived misinformation, “fake news” or data that intends to deceive the public. However, the aforementioned quoted terms are increasingly being used interchangeably, and even though that might seem innocuous, there are consequences when words that have different definitions become watered down by both overuse and misuse.
While gaslighting is a very real form of abuse, its misuse can cause it to become a catch-all term for any instance of manipulation or power dynamics in personal relationships, the government, or the media. When the term is overused, it often causes people to become desensitized to the severity of a given issue, and it can lead to individuals who are actually in abusive relationships to not recognize the warning signs in front of them. More likely, many will start to feel skeptical about using the word to describe what is happening to them so as to not seem to be taking part in some passing social media fad. How do you feel about using the word gaslighting? Has it’s recent overuse caused you to use it less or remove it from your vocabulary? Let us know in the comments below!