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Is that gas I smell?

The consequences of overusing Webster’s word of 2022

If you’re here wondering why the Merriam-Webster Dictionary made the act of lighting a burner the word of the year, then you’re in the right place.

They didn’t, but what I just did (misleading you purposefully), is a perfect example of gaslighting, or more specifically, the issue associated with the word.

For those who don’t know, the 2022 word of the year, “gaslighting,” is “the act or practice of grossly misleading someone especially for one's own advantage,” according to Merriam-Webster.

The word was derived from the 1938 play and 1944 film adaptation “Gaslight.” The plot involves the loving tale of one man's endeavor to make his wife believe she's going insane. He drives her to insanity through his ploy to dim the gaslights in the house, while insisting nothing is happening, hence “gaslighting.” Clever, I know.

Announced in late November, Merriam-Webster partially selected the term due to the fact that gaslighting saw a search increase of 1740% over the year. 

When misinformation exists in the air we breathe, seeping into our lives at every breath, it's no wonder “gaslighting” so quickly became an autofill in our mental word banks.

Truth is a valued commodity, and the phrase “gaslighting” seems to be the pistol we hold behind our backs, waiting to fire when ready.

We have begun to apply it loosely to any instance circling the idea of possible manipulation or misinformation.

It raises the question: If everyone is being gaslit in some form or another, then is anyone?

The short answer is yes. The long answer is that people are being manipulated and gaslit every day as we make jokes about the same manipulation. When we claim something as simple as the line I wrote at the beginning of this article as “gaslighting,” we take away power from the word.

“Having a name for something gives it power,” Milla Titova, assistant teaching professor in the department of psychology, said. “Start overusing the name, and it takes that power away.”

By simplifying gaslighting’s connotation, you are, whether deliberately or not, contributing to the desensitization of abuse and harming those experiencing true gaslighting.

When an abuser gaslights a victim, they are repeatedly undermining their target's perception of the world, and it should be noted that the act is not unique to romantic relationships.

“Gaslighting can exist in any situation involving a power structure,” Titova said. 

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Compared to other persisting issues, complaining about the loss of power for this one word may feel shallow, yet it is just another example of a substantial problem being demoted to trite dinner anecdotes.

With the reclamation of words and their connotations constantly evolving, serious words are often accidentally rebranded. 

“Meaning is consensus,” Dr. Rachael Tatman, language technology educator, said. “The correct form of a word is what everyone knows it to be.”

In regards to gaslighting, the word entered mainstream media during the time of Trump’s reign (and his subsequent rejection of reality), and it quickly became synonymous with “lying.”

“Gaslighting” and “synonymous with” should not be in the same sentence.

To be gaslit is to have an eyelash in your eye you can’t see. It is to have a paper cut that does not exist. It is to constantly have a word on the tip of your tongue – always there, yet forever out of reach. 

“Gaslighting starts to make you question your own reality,” Titova said.

Still, “gaslighting” being the word of the year suggests one positive thing. 

“There is a broader context of increase in [the] discussion taking place,” Tatman said. “It can be a helpful tool to introduce people to the word and the language.”

As the word continues to become so prevalent in our common vocabulary, people are increasingly curious about what it means, and how to prevent the need for its use in the first place. 

As for such a serious word being boasted for 2022, perhaps it is a good thing; as they say, any publicity is good publicity.

The start of a new year encourages that now is as good a time as any to unload that gaslighting pistol, and maybe pick up a duplicitous knife or deceitful arrow.

Whichever poison you choose, lay off gaslighting, and wait to fire until you truly smell some gas (metaphorically, of course).

Reach writer Emma Schwichtenberg at Twitter: @emaroswitz 

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