The use of ‘gaslighting’ stretches beyond original meaning

Merriam-Webster picked ‘gaslighting’ as Word of the Year for statistical reasons only. Merriam-Webster saw a staggering 1,740 percent increase in searches for “gaslighting” in its online dictionary in 2022.

image: The Hindu

The word comes from a 1930s play called Gas Light that was turned into a 1944 film starring Ingrid Bergman. In it, the protagonist’s husband secretly dims and brightens the gas-powered indoor lights and insists she is imagining it, making her believe she is insane.

Gaslighting is broadly defined as a type of psychological abuse that makes someone seem or feel “crazy.” It resembles other forms of psychological abuse. Sociologist Paige L. Sweet says:

“We know that psychological abuse, and ‘crazy making’ in particular, is a core feature of domestic, or intimate partner, violence. It functions in part by convincing victims that what they are experiencing is not real or important and then blames them for their experience (Scientific American, October, 2022).”

Professor Sweet gives “Selah’s” experience as an example of gaslighting. After suffering years of abuse from her husband, Selah left him and got her own apartment. Her husband broke in while she was at work and made himself comfortable. When Selah arrived home, he pretended that nothing was amiss and asked what they were having for dinner. He distorted Selah’s reality (she had left him) by insisting on his own reality (they were still together). He peppered subtle threats throughout their conversation and wouldn’t let her leave the house to get groceries.

As often happens with perfectly good words, gaslighting has become popularized to the point that the original meaning has vaporized.

People suffering from long COVID took up the term “medical gaslighting” to describe the medical establishment’s inappropriate dismissal of their symptoms. Patients demanded that their version of reality be recognized and that “experts” held gatekeeping power over their medical care for producing a distorted version of reality.

Then U.S. Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney claimed that “Big Oil was ‘gaslighting’ the public.”

 “As we face more deadly, extreme weather around the globe, fossil fuel companies are reaping record profits and ramping up their misleading PR tactics to distract from their central role in fueling the climate crisis,” said Chairwoman Maloney.  “My Committee’s investigation leaves no doubt that, in the words of one company official, Big Oil is ‘gaslighting’ the public.

Over the past decade gaslighting has become extremely popular. This is partly a result of the success of the #MeToo movement, which illuminated how victims of sexual violence and harassment are systemically doubted and discredited when they go public. Commentators have also used it to describe the mind-bending denials of reality coming out of the White House during the Trump presidency.

But those suffering from diseases that are difficult to diagnose are not suffering from gaslighting. Malevolent health care workers are not distorting patient’s sense of reality.

Big Oil is promoting its own interests when it resists anything that would reduce profits. But they are merely taking care of business, not gaslighting.

The word has exploded online among Twitter, Instagram and TikTok users interested in mental health, as well as among political and culture writers and popular psychologists.

All examples of a good word stretched so thin that it loses any consistent meaning.