Designed as a way to keep up with the ever-growing and evolving nature of the English language as well as a reflection of the times and the current cultural moment, Merriam-Webster's annual word of the year can often say a lot about where we presently stand as a society. Started in 2003 and determined by the site's most-searched words and a voter poll, past "words of the year" have included the likes of the Stephen Colbert-coined buzzword "truthiness," the now-outdated internet slang "w00t" and, in recent years, timely terms such as "pandemic" and "vaccine." But what does it say about our current state of affairs that this year's entry into the illustrious list is "gaslighting?"
Per Merriam-Webster, "gaslighting" is defined as “the act or practice of grossly misleading someone, especially for one’s own advantage," often through the use of manipulative tactics that make others believe they're in the wrong in service to a fabricated version of reality. The word is ascribed to an emotionally abusive type of manipulation that, in the medical world, has been used to minimize issues that have particularly impacted women, Black people, and people of color. Merriam-Webster reports that searches for "gaslighting" increased by 1740% this year.
For the aspiring etymologists out there, the origins of the word date back to the 1938 play and 1944 Oscar-nominated film Gaslight, which follows a man's attempts to trick his wife into thinking she’s losing her mind by telling her that the gaslights in their home, which dim when he’s in the attic doing dastardly deeds, are not fading at all.
While often erroneously used as shorthand for any form of lying or diversion from the truth, Merriam-Webster did note that the word was the “favored word for the perception of deception.” In an era of deepfakes, AI-generated art and verified parody accounts, "gaslighting" being selected as word of the year feels especially prescient; determining the veracity of the content we encounter online has become progressively more difficult.
From the dissemination of information surrounding the pandemic and the COVID-19 vaccine to Donald Trump's steadfast assertions that he had actually won the 2020 election, wading through a sea of misinformation can feel like it's become accepted as a normal part of navigating our day-to-day lives.
Photo via Getty/ Joanne K. Watson/ Merriam-Webster