How ‘gaslighting’ became a common accusation

Instead of two people discussing where their perceptions of reality might differ, accusations of "gaslighting" shut down the conversation entirely.

Staff

My son told me recently that I was gaslighting him. What did that mean, actually? I found myself in sympathy with a contributor to Urban Dictionary, a crowdsourced online collection of slang, which defined gaslighting as “a word you google when your significant other accuses you of doing it to them.” It is also the rare word whose etymology we can be precise about – it comes from the title of a play, “Gaslight.”

Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 thriller is about a woman whose husband is trying to drive her insane by contradicting the evidence of her senses. She finds a letter; he steals the letter and tells her she imagined it. She hears him walking around upstairs at night, but he denies it. The house’s gas lighting – the play is set in 1880s London – flickers; he tells her that her eyes are playing tricks on her. 

In the 1950s, gaslighting became not just the title of the play but a name for the husband’s behavior. It referred to psychological manipulation so extreme that people subjected to it begin to doubt their own sanity. 

Interest in the use of the word has grown over the past decade, as shown by Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks words’ occurrences in printed books, and Google Trends, which tracks how often they are searched for online. A graph of gaslight’s usage since 2010 goes up like a rocket.  

As it has become more widespread, its meaning has become weaker and more generalized. While it can still designate deliberate emotional abuse, it is more commonly applied to any behavior or statement that makes a person question his or her own perceptions or memories. 

Gaslighting appears frequently in politics. Conservative pundits called former President Barack Obama “the Gaslighter-in-Chief”; countless news organizations have used the same epithet for former President Donald Trump, and President Joe Biden is now gaslighting Americans about the Afghanistan pullout, according to a former CIA analyst. 

An article on NBC News’ website repeats a popular definition of gaslighting – “when someone leads you to question your own reality” – and this crystallizes a problem with the term as it is commonly used. Instead of two people discussing where their perceptions of reality might differ, accusations of gaslighting shut down the conversation entirely.  

My son thought he had studied hard for a math test on which he had done poorly. I thought he hadn’t taken it seriously enough. The “reality” was probably that we were both right – he had genuinely studied hard, but he needed to study more. Was I gaslighting him? Or were we simply looking at the same situation in different ways? 

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