“Gaslight” Is Ready for Its Close-up

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Meriam-Webster anoints the “Word of the Year”

At no point in the 1944 noir thriller Gaslight does any character use “gaslight” as a verb. Pretty much no one did until it appeared in a 1995 New York Times column by Maureen Dowd about a Democratic strategy to trip up then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich. In plain language, it means to mess with someone’s head to make them doubt their own sanity, as Charles Boyer did to Ingrid Bergman.

While “gaslighting” was a handy coinage, the Times used it sparingly over the next two decades. Then suddenly in 2016, there were 34 sightings in the paper, followed by 49 in 2017 and 52 in 2018. The year-over-year trend continued through last year, topping out at 88. And now, “gaslighting” has been singled out by Merriam-Webster as 2022 Word of the Year, edging out “oligarch,” “omicron” and “Queen Consort,” among other contenders.

“In this age of misinformation — of ‘fake news,’ conspiracy theories, Twitter trolls, and deepfakes — ‘gaslighting’ has emerged as a word for our time,” the publisher said, pointing to a 1,740% increase in online searches for the term over the past 12 months. Where once “gaslight” would have been blandly defined as “light produced by burning illuminating gas,” the official definition now leads with “to psychologically manipulate (a person) usually over an extended period of time so that the victim questions the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories and experiences … doubts concerning their own emotional or mental stability.”

Merriam-Webster has been crowning a “Word of the Year” since 2003, when “democracy” came out on top. (“Blog” won in ’04.) But the practice was originated 12 years earlier by the American Dialect Society, which presciently named “gaslighting” “Most Useful/Likely to Succeed” in 2017. As of this writing, the Society hasn’t announced its choice for 2022.

This, of course, is the season when organizations, trade groups, companies, publications and cultural doyens go public with their “__of the Year” picks. Time magazine will headline its “Person/Thing/Whatever of the Year” later this month. Meanwhile, kudos to Punctuation Mark of the Year, Sealant & Adhesive of the Year, Edible Mushroom of the Year, Medical Device of the Year and Kayak Accessory of the Year.

Our hats—or, more specifically, our Bell Moto 10, named Dirt Bike Helmet of the Year by RevZilla.com—are off to all.