Merriam-Webster, the most online of the well-known dictionaries, has selected a term popularized by the internet as its word of 2022: “Gaslighting.” The verb once described a process of psychological manipulation that causes the victim to doubt their own thoughts and perceptions, but, through general overuse, has come to mean waging any extensive campaign of deception or misinformation.
Unfortunately, this means that Merriam-Webster itself — which we’d like to believe is a trustworthy reference source — is gaslighting the American public. We already had the Year of Gaslighting, and it was 2016. Don’t you remember this? Donald Trump ran for president, frequently denying he’d said the things he’d been recorded saying the day before. This led to a couple of editorials and a much broader discourse about how Trump and other narcissists gaslight people into a paralyzing state of dissonance.
In fact, the American Dialect Society selected “gaslight” as one of their “most useful” words that very year, as Trump’s entire campaign had millions questioning their own sanity for months on end. Merriam-Webster’s word of 2016, meanwhile, was “surreal,” which certainly applied to the moment, but lacked the specific verve or buzz that “gaslight” had back then. Having discovered the mid-20th century coinage for the first time, people were constantly claiming to be gaslit by romantic partners, family members, co-workers and, of course, strangers on social media. Anyone you didn’t like was a gaslighter.
Are we really going to accept “gaslighting” as the defining expression of 2022 instead? Am I going crazy? True, Merriam-Webster for some reason makes these selections based on search traffic, and I guess I believe their claim that the phrase saw a “1,740 percent increase in lookups.” Historically and culturally, however, it’s just wrong to call it the word of the year — or should I say deliberately misleading. We lived through that shit already! Please don’t tell me this is a Groundhog Day situation. It would be a truly pernicious form of gaslighting to keep declaring each new 12-month period the Age of Gaslighting.
Two more crucial facts preclude “gaslighting” from claiming linguistic honors in 2022, more than half a decade after it exploded into the collective consciousness. First: Its endless repetition since then in the back-and-forth of petty personal squabbles and attempted cancelations has totally defanged it of meaning. What was once a valuable way of characterizing particular abuse became generic slang in our ongoing debates, the filler attack verb in any disavowal of an individual or institution.
Second: Gaslighting is no longer the dominant mode of the town square. Nobody uses dogwhistles anymore, or tries to spin their former statements to mean the opposite. Everyone says the quiet part out loud. Kanye West simply and openly hates Jewish people, without ambiguity. Twitter’s new owner, Elon Musk, courts the advice and “free speech” of the platform’s rabid right-wingers, engaging liberals in hopes of “triggering” them with epic memes. Trump, long out of the White House and posting from the safety of his own MAGA-fied social media network, can share QAnon content and push election fraud conspiracies all he likes, freed from the responsibility of issuing denials or declaring reports about this behavior as “Fake News.” Your crappy ex-boyfriend may still be trying to gaslight you, but the idea doesn’t provide a useful framework for understanding where society is headed next.
So shame on you, Merriam-Webster, for trying to gaslight us into thinking that we’ve only lately reached Peak Gaslighting. We will not be fooled or swayed by this mental warfare, and we resent your low opinion of our shared memory. Honestly, we didn’t go through all that gaslighting to not recognize it now.