Merriam-Webster has chosen “gaslighting” as its word of the year for 2022.
Searches for the word on merriam-webster.com increased 1,740% in 2022 over the year before. But unlike many other words of the year, there was not one single event that drove significant spikes in curiosity around the word.
Merriam-Webster’s editor-at-large Peter Sokolowski told The Associated Press exclusively ahead of Monday’s unveiling that lookups were pervasive all year long. Typically there is a single event that drives searches.
The word “gaslighting” refers to a form of psychological coercion.
Merriam-Webster chooses its word of the year based solely on data.
Mr Sokolowski and his team weed out evergreen words most commonly looked up to gauge which word received a significant bump over the year before.
“It’s a word that has risen 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,” Mr Sokolowski said.
“It was a word looked up frequently every single day of the year,” he said.
Merriam-Webster’s top definition for “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, 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”.
“Gaslighting” is a heinous tool frequently used by abusers in relationships — and by politicians and other newsmakers. It can happen between romantic partners, within a broader family unit and among friends. It can be a corporate tactic, or a way to mislead the public. There is also “medical gaslighting”, when a health care professional dismisses a patient’s symptoms or illness as “all in your head”.
Despite its relatively recent prominence — including Gaslighter, The Chicks’ 2020 album featuring the rousingly angry titular single — the word was brought to life more than 80 years ago with Gas Light, a 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton.
It birthed 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 Gregory turns out to be a champion “gaslighter”. Among other instances, he insists her complaints over the constant dimming of their London townhouse’s gaslights is a figment of her troubled mind. It was not.
The death of Angela Lansbury in October drove some interest in lookups of the word, Mr Sokolowski said. She played Nancy Oliver, a young maid hired by Gregory and told not to bother his “high-strung” wife.
The term “gaslighting” was later used by mental health practitioners to clinically describe a form of prolonged coercive control in abusive relationships.
“There is this implication of an intentional deception,” Mr Sokolowski said. “And once one is aware of that deception, it’s not just a straightforward lie, as in, you know, ‘I didn’t eat the cookies in the cookie jar’. It’s something that has a little bit more devious quality to it. It has possibly an idea of strategy or a long-term plan.”
“Gaslighting”, Mr Sokolowski said, spent all of 2022 in the top 50 words looked up on merriam-webster.com to earn top dog word of the year status. Last year’s pick was “vaccine”.