Word of the Year – Gaslighting

Gaslighting has been decreed the word of the year by at least one dictionary. By definition, this is an acknowledgement that the word has gone mainstream. But what does gaslighting mean, and where does it come from?

To gaslight has been defined as to manipulate a person or group of people in a way similar to the way the female protagonist in the play Gas Light was manipulated. Which doesn’t get us very far. A slightly less circular explanation is that gaslighting is when a person lies for their own gain to another person so repeatedly, and with so much confidence, that the victim comes to doubt their own sanity. Often the victim will come to believe they are incapable of thinking for themselves and will become dependent on the judgement of the person or persons gaslighting them.

Modern examples include an office bully who constantly undermines a colleague’s work / input into meetings so as to make them doubt their own ability or opinions. Or when some trans identifying males, who are still attracted to women, put their profiles on lesbian dating sites and complain loudly if a lesbian rejects them. Their argument is that they too are women so only a bigot would exclude them from their dating pool, thus trying to make a woman feel ‘unsisterly’.

To gaslight is a relatively modern term. Its origins date back to a 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton, called Gas Light. In this the protagonist, Mrs Manningham, is constantly belittled by her husband to the extent that she thinks she is going mad, and he convinces her she would in fact go insane without him being there to care for her. Even so, when he goes out, which he does nearly every night, she notices that the gas lights in the living room always go dim – or is she just imagining things?

It transpires he only married her because she inherited the house they are living in from a murdered aunt. Mr Manningham believes that there is a substantial fortune hidden somewhere in the house and his plan is to find it whilst driving his wife mad enough for her to be sent to an asylum, so he can keep the property and money for himself. Hence, when he ‘goes out’ every night, he in fact returns in secret to continue his search of the upper parts of the house. And when he puts the lights on upstairs, the lights downstairs go dim.

The play was an immediate success and was subsequently made into a film and renamed Gaslight. It was directed by George Cukor and starred Ingrid Bergman. Neither play nor film has been put on much recently (though both are still pretty compelling viewing). But the notion that Mrs Manningham was being gaslighted by her husband has taken hold of our collective imagination in recent years, and the term, in its various permutations, has now become mainstream.

Footnote: Another word that is also very much in the mainstream, and feels like it has been in the lexicon forever, is texting. In fact, the very first text message – Merry Christmas – was sent on December 3rd 1992 via a combination of computer and old fashioned keyed mobile phone. This Special Messaging Service (SMS), as it came to be called, was cumbersome and no-one, apart from the enthusiasts, felt it would really catch on. But it has (and some!) – though the usual word for what most of us do many times a day – texting – wasn’t coined until 2010.

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