Are you being gaslit? By yourself?

Merriam-Webster has come out "Gaslighting" to be its ‘Word of the Year’

A still from the 1944 film Gaslight
A still from the 1944 film Gaslight

Sushmita Bose

Published: Thu 8 Dec 2022, 5:03 PM

As 2022 nears its end, Merriam-Webster has come out with its ‘Word of the Year’: “Gaslighting”. On its own website, this is how Merriam-Webster gives it definition: “the act or practice of grossly misleading someone, especially for one’s own advantage”.

It’s one of my favourite words — and my fondness for it predates its topical popularity. I know of gaslighting for a long time now, at least for the past 20 years, although it’s usage, I’ve noticed, has been especially shrill for the past couple of years. Everyone I know claims they are being “gaslit”.

But first, let me tell you why it has always been one of my favourite words. It sounds lovely, has a beautiful cadence, and translates into an arresting visual in a jiffy. Add to the mix the fact that it has its etymology in the movies. In 1944, George Cukor made a movie called Gaslight, starring the beauteous Ingrid Bergman and the rakish Charles Boyer. Bergman plays a woman who’s made to believe she’s going insane by her devious husband, played by Boyer. In the movie, gas lights on the street below the house they live in play a recurring motif: their flickering interplay of light and shade makes the woman believe she’s losing her mind even as she is egged on by the man. Gaslight was adapted from Gas Light — with a space separating two words, making it a noun instead of the more verb-ish Gaslight — which was a play written by Patrick Hamilton in 1938. In 1938 and 1944, the word gaslight did not exist, but it came into its own soon after, though rarely used; it started going mainstream at the turn of the century — which is when I took a shine to it — and reached fever-pitch post-pandemic.

In its worst form, gaslighting is emotional abuse. In its more “entertaining” avatar, it is psychological manipulation. Now, why do I say psychological manipulation can be entertaining? Only because gaslighting starts with ourselves; so, at times, it’s fun to watch ourselves being deluded simply because we are prone to being delusional.

Days after Merriam-Webster anointed gaslighting on the year’s top perch, a friend and I decided to carry out a social experiment to give closure to a discussion we were both having. For a change, we were both on the same side of the fence: social media and the tech-fuelled fakeness have compounded our delusional quota to a level where gaslighting is bound to be symptomatic. She — my friend — has more than 2,000 “friends” on Facebook (while I have a measly 800), where she posted a photo of a burnt dish, which looked gross and distinctly unappetising. But she gave a caption that was attention-seeking/clickbaity: “My grandmother’s roast recipe — do I have it in me to be half the cook she used to be?”

She was pummeled with Hearts and Wows and Likes — in that order.

And “heartfelt” feedback.

“Looks tempting”.

“Wish I could have a bite of that”.

“Sooooo delicious!!! When will you make this for me?”

“Yummyyyy…. Your grandmother would be SO proud.”

And many, many more.

Her question to me was: “Was I being gaslit into believing something which looks terrible is actually beautiful, and therefore I am a commendable cook when I can’t even pop a toast without burning it?”

“But did you really feel good — when you knew you were baiting them, and were, in a sense, being the gaslighter?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she responded. “For a tiny flicker, I did start believing that I may be a good cook. Oh my God, gaslighting comes so easy to all of us… no wonder it’s the word of the year!”

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