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Gaslighting: The ‘in’ word?

[Note: This post has been updated, most recently on  Jan. 2, 2022.]

Q: It seems to me that the “in” word right now may be “gaslighting.” People are in an awful hurry to use it. Your take?

A: Well, “gaslighting” is definitely an “in” word now, but we wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s the “in” word.

The verbal noun “gaslighting” was a runner-up for the Oxford Dictionaries 2018 word of the year (“toxic” was the winner).

And the verb “gaslight” won the Most Useful/Likely to Succeed category in the American Dialect Society’s 2016 word-of-the-year competition (“dumpster fire” was the overall winner).

As it turns out, “gaslight” and “gaslighting” aren’t especially new. The two terms have been used for dozens of years to describe the psychological manipulation of people into questioning their sanity.

The ultimate source of the usage is Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play Gas Light, a thriller set in Victorian London about a diabolical husband who tries to drive his wife insane. (Across the pond, the play opened on Broadway in December 1941 under the title Angel Street, with Vincent Price as the villain.)

Hamilton’s play is better known as having inspired movie treatments—the 1940 British film Gaslight and the more famous American version of 1944.

In the American Gaslight, directed by George Cukor, a husband (Charles Boyer) tries to drive his wife (Ingrid Bergman) crazy by insisting that the flickering gaslights in their house don’t really flicker. A detective (Joseph Cotten) comes to the rescue.

However, the words “gaslight” and “gaslighting” aren’t actually used in the play or the films, as contributors to the ADS mailing list pointed out in an early 2017 discussion initiated by the language commentator Ben Yagoda.

In senses related to psychological manipulation, “gaslight” apparently was first an adjective. In a 2021 posting to the mailing list, Yagoda reported this 1948 sighting of “gaslight” used as an adjective in a short newspaper item:

GASLIGHT—Divorce petitions filed in Dade circuit court in recent weeks reveal an influence traceable to the current run of movies dealing with psychiatric plots, especially those in which the husband tries to convince the wife she is crazy. Several complainants have charged husbands with actions designed to produce fear of mental unbalance, and one suit, filed the other day, claimed the husband ‘gave her the Gaslight treatment’ ” (The Miami News, Sept. 16, 1948).

Similar adjectival uses of “gaslight” showed up in the 1950s. The linguist Ben Zimmer, for example, noted the usage in “Gracie Buying Boat for George,” an Oct. 30, 1952, episode of The Burns and Allen Show.

“At 16:20 in the YouTube video,” Zimmer says, “Harry (Fred Clark) says to Gracie, ‘Give him the gaslight treatment!’ and then explains what that means. A bit later you hear George say, ‘So they sold Gracie on the gaslight bit.’ ”

Josh Chetwynd, author of Totally Scripted: Idioms, Words, and Quotes From Hollywood to Broadway That Have Changed the English Language (2017), cites the adjectival usage in Burns and Allen as well as in the ’50s sitcom Make Room for Daddy and the ’60s series Car 54, Where Are You?

As for the verb “gaslight,” it seems to date from the mid-’60s. Zimmer has reported its use in “The Grudge Match,” a Nov. 12, 1965, episode of the sitcom Gomer Pyle: USMC:

Duke: You know, you guys, I’m wondering. Maybe if we can’t get through to the Sarge we can get through to the Chief.

Frankie: How do you mean?

Duke: I mean psychological warfare.

Gomer: Huh?

Duke: The old war on nerves. We’ll gaslight him.

And Stephen Goranson, a library assistant at Duke University, has noted the use of the verb as a psychological term in the book Culture and Personality (1961), by Anthony F. C. Wallace:

“It is also popularly believed to be possible to ‘gaslight’ a perfectly healthy person into psychosis by interpreting his own behavior to him as symptomatic of serious mental illness.”

Goranson also cited the use of the verbal noun “gaslighting” in Culture and Personality: “While ‘gaslighting’ itself may be a mythical crime, there is no question that any social attitude which interprets a given behavior or experience as symptomatic of a generalized incompetence is a powerful creator of shame.”

So if “gaslight” and “gaslighting” are dozens of years old, why have they showed up in recent word-of-the year competitions?

Yagoda suggests that the recent prominence of the terms may have been inspired by President Trump’s behavior.

In a Jan. 12, 2017, post on Lingua Franca, the language blog of the Chronicle of Higher Education, he writes:

“The new prominence came from Donald Trump’s habitual tendency to say X and then, at some later date, indignantly declare, ‘I did not say X. In fact, I would never dream of saying X.’ ”

Yagoda cites several headlines tracked down by Zimmer, including these two—the first published shortly before the President was elected and the second a month after:

“Donald Trump self-sabotage gambit: He’s used ‘gaslighting’ in place of apologies for his actions” (Salon, Oct. 16, 2016), and “Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America” (Teen Vogue, Dec. 10, 2016).

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