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Word Wisdom: Gaslighting

The latest inspirational column from Rev. Dr. John Kreutzwieser
Word Wisdom

The “Word of the Year” according to Merriam-Webster is gaslighting. The number of searches on the Merriam-Webster dictionary site for gaslighting increased by 1,740% in 2022. The term referred primarily to psychological manipulation in the mid-1900s, but its current usage is the act or practice of grossly misleading someone else, especially for one’s own advantage. This modern meaning is driven by the “vast increase in channels and technologies used to mislead” people, especially in personal and political contexts. "In this age of misinformation - of 'fake news', conspiracy theories, Twitter trolls, and deep fakes - gaslighting has emerged as a word for our time," according to Merriam-Webster.

Gaslighting has origins from Patrick Hamilton's Victorian-era play in 1938, Gas Light. The story is set in London, England about a middle-class marriage based on lies and deceit. The lead character Jack Manningham seeks to convince his wife Bella that she is going insane to steal from her. The play gets it title from the manipulation of the dimming of the gas light in their home. His mysterious activities in the attic cause the house’s gas lights to dim, but Jack insists to his wife that the lights are not dimming and that she can’t trust her own perceptions.

The play was adapted for the movies. Gaslight was a 1940 British film directed by Thorold Dickinson and a 1944 US movie directed by George Cukor. The American version, which stars Ingrid Bergman, won two Academy Awards and is preserved in the US National Film Registry as a "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant" work. It is interesting to note that the words “gaslight” and “gaslighting” aren’t used in the play or the films.

When gaslighting was first used in the mid-20th century, it referred to a deception like that in the play Gas Light. Ben Yagoda came across this item in The Miami News from September 1948: Divorce petitions filed in Dade circuit court in recent weeks reveal an influence traceable to the current run of movies dealing with psychiatric plots, especially those in which the husband tries to convince the wife she is crazy. Several complainants have charged husbands with actions designed to produce fear of mental unbalance, and one suit, filed the other day, claimed the husband ‘gave her the Gaslight treatment.’

As a verb gaslight it seems to date from the mid-1960s. A November 12, 1965, episode of Gomer Pyle: USMC used the term.

Duke: You know, you guys, I’m wondering. Maybe if we can’t get through to the Sarge we can get through to the Chief.

Frankie: How do you mean?

Duke: I mean psychological warfare.

Gomer: Huh?

Duke: The old war on nerves. We’ll gaslight him.

The recent prominence of gaslighting may have been inspired by former President Trump’s behavior. The word has now come to refer to the act or practice of grossly misleading someone, for a personal advantage. In this use, gaslighting is forms of deception and manipulation, such as fake news and deepfake, common sayings of Donald Trump. The idea of a deliberate conspiracy to mislead has made gaslighting useful in describing lies that are part of a larger plan. Methods of gaslighting also include obfuscation, withholding pertinent information, blocking, diverting, trivializing, and denial.

In competition for positive poll numbers, government officials can gaslight the public. This makes it difficult to know what the truth is and what is propaganda. The idea of debating the issue seems a long-forgotten method of the democratic process. We, the public, need to take it upon ourselves to be better informed about the issues of the day and not just form opinions and voting habits based on sound bites. Gaslighting can be a very effective tool to slowly confuse people who don’t realize they are being controlled and manipulated.

Corporate gaslighting blames children for being addicted to social media and conveniently ignores how companies have intentionally designed their products to have addictive features. Be wary. Not everything is conspiracy and done to induce paranoia, however, the public needs to research, discuss, and debate the topics of the day. As the old adage says, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”

John would like to know if anyone has a sincere interest in a relevant word that he could possibly research for an upcoming column. If so, please send your requests to . Words will be selected according to relevance and research criteria. We cannot confirm that all words will be used.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of this publication. 


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