‘Gaslighting’ revealed as the word of the year

Merriam-Webster’s top definition for gaslighting is ‘psychological manipulation of a person, usually over an extended period of time’ - AP
Merriam-Webster’s top definition for gaslighting is ‘psychological manipulation of a person, usually over an extended period of time’ - AP

“Gaslighting”, the practice of manipulating a person to second guess themself, has been named American English dictionary Merriam-Webster’s word of the year.

Searches for the word on merriam-webster.com increased 1,740 per cent in 2022. However, unlike previous words of the year, there wasn’t a single event that drove spikes in curiosity.

“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,” he said.

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”.

'All in your head'

Gaslighting 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 health care professional dismisses a patient’s symptoms or illness as “all in your head”.

Despite its recent prominence, the word was brought to life more than 80 years ago with “Gas Light”, a 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton.

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

'Implication of intentional deception'

“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 devious quality to it. It has possibly an idea of strategy or a long-term plan.”

The American English dictionary 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.

“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”.

Vote on this year’s Top 10 words