Ogren: Gaslighting: used and abused

When a word gains popularity and loses specificity, its meaning fades.


Image by Ava Weinreis

by Allison Ogren

Merriam-Webster announced the word of the year for 2022, and it is “gaslighting.” It is a term that is often applied to public rhetoric, but its meaning has largely been lost due to widespread misuse on social media.

The term “gaslighting” comes from old theater, namely the 1938 play “Angel Street” and subsequent film, “Gaslight.” In the story, a man attempts to convince his wife that she is going insane by telling her that the gas lights in the attic are not dimming when she sees that they are.

The concept can be applied to several scenarios today. If someone is gaslighting you, they are trying to convince you that what you are perceiving is false through misinformation and repetition until you believe them over your own observations.

This is a form of psychological manipulation and abuse, and it results in confusion, loss of self-esteem, uncertainty about one’s own emotional and mental stability and dependence on the perpetrator, per the original Merriam-Webster definition.

Over recent years, the term has taken on a slightly broader meaning. Now, people usually use the word to describe any form of purposeful misinformation used for personal advantage.

When you think about this concept in very general terms like that, you can probably identify a few places where this may have happened to you or someone you know, and how you felt while it was happening versus when you identified the manipulation for what it was.

Many people these days immediately think of politics and media when they hear the word gaslighting, and they are not entirely incorrect in doing so. There are so many public figures arguing over which facts are real that it can be difficult to discern who is telling the whole truth, versus others who are purposefully crafting a limited perception for you to adopt.

The trouble is when the proverbial line is crossed into gaslighting. This is true in public rhetoric just as it is in personal relationships. Gaslighting is a term that is thrown around so often that it has lost its potency. When you realize you are the victim of gaslighting, it can be painful enough to disentangle yourself from the manipulation without having to confront the fact that fewer and fewer people take gaslighting to mean the very serious psychological abuse that it is.

How could this be? Gaslighting is a terrible manipulation pattern, and it should be treated as such in every case where it occurs. Why is it becoming meaningless?

Unfortunately, the problem can be related to how the word is used in colloquial conversation. Social media and the “trendiness” of words contributes to the dilution of definition. Gaslighting has been conflated with other, simpler terms because it is essentially the new “sexy” term for lying. It is the new hashtag, the new insult that can be hurled on Twitter, without any burden of proof or explanation of how this is different from regular old lying or misinformation.

When the definition of a specific term is colloquially overgeneralized, that term loses its value. When gaslighting is equated to all other forms of lying, it undermines the severity of the punishment when actual gaslighting occurs.

Indeed, lying is so commonplace that usually it goes largely unpunished. Some lies — “white lies” — are considered minor offenses if no one was deeply harmed.

Gaslighting, however, is a term that should maintain its connection to psychological manipulation and abuse. If the accusation of gaslighting is used sparingly and specifically, then people who are guilty of it will be held accountable to a much higher standard. However, if it gets overused and misapplied as it has this year, it loses its meaning, and the consequences for even egregious examples become very minor. “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” comes to mind.

Language loses meaning when words get conflated and applied inaccurately or nonspecifically. We cannot communicate effectively if words keep changing meaning based on trends and whims. It is a beautiful thing that we have such a large bank of words at our disposal for communicating with nuance and specificity, and it would be a tragedy to lose that.

Oxford, on the other hand, had a word of the year that is less perilous to use incorrectly: “goblin mode.”


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