As a person who writes about honesty and deception, I felt a spark of hope Monday when I found out that Merriam-Webster had made “gaslighting” the official word of the year for 2022.
Maybe, just maybe, people are finally ready to engage with dishonesty and how it operates in their lives.
But for goodness’ sake, what took so long?
We have to engage with issues like gaslighting, including all the ugliness of the ways it’s been done in the past and the ways it’s still happening today. And, here’s the real rub, the ways we do it ourselves.
Gaslighting, as Merriam-Webster defines it, is “the act or practice of grossly misleading someone especially for one’s own advantage.” Our friends at the dictionary choose every year’s word based solely on data: This year saw a 1,740% increase in lookups on Merriam-Webster’s site for the term gaslighting.
But the term sprung from a movie that came out in 1944. “Gaslight,” set in the 1880s when lamps were fueled by gas, depicts a husband manipulating his wife into believing she’s crazy. His goal is to commit her to an asylum, find the jewels her aunt had hidden in the attic and claim her fortune as his own. Whenever he is in the attic looking for the jewels, he turns on the lights, which, because of the way the gas works, causes the light to dim in other parts of the house. But he repeatedly tells his wife she’s imagining the dimming.
Personally, I first heard the term a full decade ago, when a friend of mine was getting divorced. “He’s gaslighting me,” she told me, explaining the plot of the movie, and how the term evolved to describe lying, manipulative behavior like her husband employed.
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.
It’s a term that works in both the macro and the micro, as at home in conversations about national security as it is in the DMs of 12-year-old girls (I have one, so I know this firsthand). It is the feeling of being defrauded, lied to and disregarded completely on purpose for self-interested and dishonest reasons.
No surprise, a lot of people searched for this word in 2022.
Americans surely had cause to use it during the Jan. 6 hearings, with their explosive testimony about former President Donald Trump’s master gaslighting of the American public, claiming that he won an election he lost. And when Republicans blamed marijuana and not enough people going to church — basically, everything but guns — for gun violence and school shootings.
Then there was the overturning of Roe v. Wade, with red state after red state — including my own of Ohio — trying to pretend that this is what the majority of Americans want, when they very clearly do not. And of course it was in need once again when the former president incoherently announced he was running again in 2024, and it occurred to random people everywhere that there must be some perfect word to encapsulate his deranged, deceitful behavior over the last decade.
But that’s the thing. This behavior has been evident over all that time, since at least Trump’s racist and false insinuations that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States, when every piece of evidence before our eyes confirmed he was.
So while gaslighting is very 2022, it also could have been the word of the year many times before now — indeed, in nearly every period of American history. Certainly it was fitting in 1492, when the messages Europeans broadcast to inhabitants were things like, “Your worries are all in your head! We’re just looking around real quick.”
And when the Indian Removal Act of 1830 passed, sold to Indigenous people as a totally fair and reasonable deal that was really in their best interest — if they just gave up “some” of their land, they could keep the rest.
We’re only in this particular country, in this particular moment, because of coordinated gaslighting efforts by previous individuals and administrations and institutions and publishers of history books. The irony, of course, is that a big chunk of our population cannot accept this fact, so they must gaslight to try to hide it.
What a mess. Thanks for bringing it all to light, Merriam-Webster! It would be so much easier to just focus on the other popular 2022 searches, like “queen consort.”
But we have to engage with issues like gaslighting, including all the ugliness of the ways it’s been done in the past and the ways it’s still happening today. And, here’s the real rub, the ways we do it ourselves.
That’s right. You and me.
This is why I wrote a book about paying attention to your own honesty. Yes, other people lie — and gaslight. A lot. But what do honesty and dishonesty look like in your own life?
As I’ve reported before, people consistently say that honesty is the most important virtue, but in my experience interviewing dozens of social scientists and philosophers who study honesty, most people don’t really want to think about it too much other than to notice dishonesty around them or use the web to look up terms.
So, listen critically? Yep. Fact-check? Yep. Expose the gaslighters? Double yep. And then look inside yourself. Sometimes “You spot it, you got it” is annoyingly accurate.
If we all did this, maybe the word of the year for 2023 would be self-awareness.