Gaslighting

Here’s a question for you: Is gaslighting a word? It’s a term I first came across in Carolyn Hax’s advice column in the Washington Post. Gaslighting refers to manipulative behavior that makes people think they’re crazy. But if you check a current dictionary, you won’t find that definition of gaslighting there.

The term harks back to Gaslight, a 1944 thriller starring Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, and Joseph Cotten. The movie depicts a villain who marries a beautiful woman and tries to convince her that she’s insane. One tactic is to insist that the gas lighting in their home is working just fine when in fact the lights often dim and flicker.

(Bergman, incidentally, is my favorite actress.)

Before I get into the is-it-a-word issue, I’d like to take a moment to look at the phenomenon of gaslighting. Ask yourself whether this has ever happened to you: You’re having an impossibly hard time with someone who’s behaving badly – but everyone else thinks you’re the one with the problem.

It could be a teacher (she frequently mistreats her students, but parents and administrators insist that she’s doing a great job), a parent (the kids are miserable, but Mom or Dad is highly respected in the community), a relationship (you were supposed to be the perfect couple, and everyone is shocked when you finally break up), or someone you used to hang out with (a charming enemy who spins endless tales about what an awful person you are).

If you’re a student of postmodernism, you know that naming these forms of manipulation empowers victims to fight back. (I keep thinking about a professor I once had who kept talking about the power of naming. You can’t combat a problem if you don’t know it’s there. Naming it is the first step to victory.)

But then there’s my original question: Is gaslighting even a word? The dictionaries don’t list it, and my spellchecker displays an angry red line every time I type it. What do you think?

I’m going to argue that gaslighting is indeed a word, and I’m going to call on the American Heritage Dictionary to back me up. Here’s their definition of what constitutes a word:

A sound or a combination of sounds, or its representation in writing or printing, that symbolizes and communicates a meaning….

There’s nothing here about proper grammar, or English teachers, or a panel of experts who bestow word status. And there’s no mention of inclusion in a dictionary. If a sound or a group of letters communicates meaning, it’s a word. (Hello, gaslighting!)

At least once a month I come across a Facebook post or a blog entry declaring that irregardless (or anyways or bestest or some other nonstandard expression) isn’t a word.

I have two things to say about the people who make these pronouncements: First, they’re wrong. Second, they’re betraying their ignorance of basic linguistics.

Just for the record: I don’t like any of those words myself. (I don’t say binky or tum-tum or yukky either.) But they’re all words. (I just thought of something: I hate the word respective. Can I say that it’s not a word?)

We English teachers would be doing everyone a big favor if we taught our students the categories that professionals use to classify words: standard, nonstandard, colloquial, slang, and so on.

Back to gaslighting. (There’s the angry red line again, even though I’ve added gaslighting to my online dictionary.) I’m fascinated that a movie dating back before I was born has been resurrected in our everyday conversation, and I’m wondering what the future status of gaslighting will be.

Will it make its way into a future edition of our standard dictionaries? Very possibly. But that won’t make it a real word. Gaslighting achieved that status the first time someone used it in speaking or writing.

Can we all please stop the nonsensical “it’s not a word” talk? 

IngridBergmanStamp

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4 thoughts on “Gaslighting

  1. AvatarJeanne D Wagner

    Thank you Jean. I especially enjoyed this article. I did not know what gaslighting meant before now (I just go the angry red line too!), and this explained it perfectly. I daresay gaslighting is a by-product of being a narcissist, but that’s another conversation.

  2. AvatarJenna

    Jean – excellent article as always. (One quibble: as I recall, and I could be remembering incorrectly, the film _Gaslight_ is based on a stage play.) But who doesn’t love Ingrid Bergman? One of my favorite actors also!

  3. Avatarballroomdancer Post author

    Hi, Jeanne – I think your suggestion of a connection to narcissism is right on target. I’m glad you enjoyed the article – thanks for the comment!

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