'Gaslighting' is Merriam-Webster's surprise word of 2022

Searches for the word increased by almost 2,000 per cent over the past year, without a single event driving the spike, says the online US dictionary

'Gaslighting' is Merriam-Webster's top-searched word for this year. AP
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“Gaslighting” — mind manipulating, grossly misleading, downright deceitful — is online US dictionary Merriam-Webster’s word of the year.

Searches for the word increased by 1,740 per cent in 2022 over the year before. But there wasn’t a single event that drove significant spikes in curiosity, as it usually goes with the chosen word of the year.

The gaslighting was pervasive.

“It’s a word that has risen so quickly in the English language, and especially in the last four years, that it actually came as a surprise to me and to many of us,” said Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster’s editor-at-large.

“It was a word looked up frequently every single day of the year.”

Merriam-Webster’s top definition for gaslighting is the psychological manipulation of a person, usually over an extended period of time, that “causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories and typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty of one’s emotional or mental stability, and a dependency on the perpetrator”.

Gaslighting is a heinous tool frequently used by abusers in relationships — and by politicians and other newsmakers. It can happen between romantic partners, within a broader family unit and among friends. It can be a corporate tactic, or a way to mislead the public.

There’s also “medical gaslighting”, when a healthcare professional dismisses a patient’s symptoms or illness as “all in your head”.

The origin of gaslighting

Despite its relatively recent prominence — including Gaslighter, the 2020 album by The Chicks featuring the rousingly angry titular single — the word was brought to life more than 80 years ago with Gas Light, a 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton.

It birthed two film adaptations in the 1940s. One was George Cukor’s Gaslight in 1944, starring Ingrid Bergman as Paula Alquist and Charles Boyer as Gregory Anton. The two marry after a whirlwind romance and Gregory turns out to be a champion gaslighter. Among other instances, he insists her complaints over the constant dimming of their London town house’s gaslights is a figment of her troubled mind. It wasn’t.

The death of Angela Lansbury in October drove some interest in looking up the word, Sokolowski said. She played Nancy Oliver, a young maid hired by Gregory, and told not to bother his “high-strung” wife.

The term gaslighting was later used by mental health practitioners to clinically describe a form of prolonged coercive control in abusive relationships.

“There is this implication of an intentional deception,” Sokolowski said. “And once one is aware of that deception, it’s not just a straightforward lie, as in, you know, I didn’t eat the cookies in the cookie jar. It’s something that has a little bit more of a devious quality to it. It has possibly an idea of strategy or a long-term plan.”

Merriam-Webster, which logs 100 million page views a month on its site, chooses its word of the year based solely on data. Sokolowski and his team weed out evergreen words most commonly looked up to gauge which word received a significant bump over the year before.

They don’t slice and dice why people look up words, which can be anything from quick spelling and definition checks to some sort of attempt at inspiration or motivation. Some of the droves who looked up “gaslighting” this year might have wanted to know, simply, if it’s one or two words, or whether it’s hyphenated.

Gaslighting, Sokolowski said, spent all of 2022 in the top 50 words looked up on merriam-webster.com to earn top-dog word of the year status. Last year’s pick was “vaccine”.

Merriam-Webster's top 10 words of 2022

1. "Gaslighting," gaining popularity over the past four years without any specific event driving its spike.

2. “Oligarch”, driven by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

3. “Omicron,” the persistent Covid-19 variant and the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet.

4. “Codify,” as in turning abortion rights into federal law in the US.

5. “Queen consort,” what King Charles’ wife, Camilla, is now known as.

6. “Raid,” as in the search of former US president Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home.

7. “Sentient,” with look-ups brought on by Google firing the engineer who claimed an unreleased AI system had become sentient.

8. “Cancel culture,” enough said.

9. “LGBTQIA,” for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex, and asexual, aromantic or agender.

10. “Loamy,” which many Wordle users tried back in August, though the right word that day was “clown”.

Updated: November 28, 2022, 7:25 AM