Gaslighting is 2022’s Word of the Year (or is it?)


As 2022 draws to an end, dictionaries are selecting their word of the year. The decision process is based on analyzing search data to uncover the words that reflect on important issues of 2022. Merriam-Webster, the world’s favorite dictionary, named “gaslighting” as word of the year following a 1,740% increase in searches for the term.

The word of the year offers perspective on society at large and our current cultural preoccupations. Gaslighting can be seen in a coworker telling you that you’re taking an inappropriate comment “too seriously” to politicians railing about “fake news.” When it comes to gaslighting on a mass scale, spreading misinformation serves the goal of rewriting the narrative, controlling public opinion, and discrediting anything that tarnishes said narrative.

The Origins and Evolution of Gaslighting

The term “gaslighting” comes from the 1938 play Gas Light, in which a husband manipulates his wife to make her doubt her perceptions of reality. When she tells him that the gas lights in their house are dimming, he assures her that she’s imagining things and it’s all in her head (spoiler alert: it’s not).

The events that took place in the play (and subsequent films) fall under Merriam-Webster’s first definition for gaslighting: “psychological manipulation of a person usually over an extended period of time that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories and typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty of one’s emotional or mental stability, and a dependency on the perpetrator.”

Various truth-blurring techniques are used to exert power and control over others. Over time, gaslighting has also come to refer to “the act or practice of grossly misleading someone, especially for a personal advantage.” In this definition, gaslighting is closely related to other forms of manipulation and deception, including disinformation, fake news, and deepfake.

Interestingly, there wasn’t a single event that spiked curiosity about gaslighting, which is typically what happens with the chosen word of the year. Instead, it just kept appearing in TV, news, and social media posts. Gaslighting was pervasive, as were lookups of the term.

  • People experiencing long Covid used the term ‘medical gaslighting’ to describe how healthcare providers inappropriately dismissed their symptoms.
  • Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney declared that “Big Oil is ‘gaslighting’ the public” by claiming to be part of the solution for climate change without actually improving their emissions.
  • Evidence presented to the House Select Committee investigating the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol suggests that former President Donald Trump is a “master gaslighter.”
  • While 53% of Americans support stricter gun laws, many politicians gaslight the public by placing the blame for school shootings on everything from marijuana to absent fathers, single mothers, mental illness, video games, and even the public school system itself.

Previous Words of the Year

There’s even a connection between Merriam-Webster’s 2022 and 2021 words of the year. In 2021, that word was “vaccine,” which saw a sharp rise in lookups during the development and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. As medical, scientific, and public health experts worked to help people get vaccinated, gaslighters worked to demonize their efforts. From politicians to media personalities and anonymous social media profiles, gaslighting techniques included claiming that such experts were members of the ‘Deep State,’ shills for pharmaceutical companies, or were using the vaccine to alter a person’s DNA.

Remember, the word of the year is a reflection of our current cultural and societal conditions. With that in mind, let’s take a look at previous Merriam-Webster words of the year:

  • 2021: Vaccine
  • 2020: Pandemic. The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11. That day, lookups for the term increased by 115,806% over that day in 2019.
  • 2019: They. The English language is fluid, and our understanding of what words mean shift with time. It also lacks a gender-neutral singular noun, which is problematic nonbinary individuals. In September 2019, Merriam-Webster officially added “used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary” to the definition of “they.”
  • 2018: Justice. Search volume for this term was 74% higher in 2018 than the year prior. The concept of justice was central to numerous debates in 2018 relating to racial, social, criminal, and economic issues.
  • 2017: Feminism. Throughout the year, “feminism” saw a 70% lookup increase from 2016. It started in late January with the Women’s Marches held both around the country and internationally. Interest in the term also increased with the #MeToo movement, which focused on women’s accounts of sexual assault and harassment.
  • 2016: Surreal. Some words of the year have continuous search patterns, while others have random spikes in interest. “Surreal” had three major spikes in interest in 2016. In March, surreal was used in coverage of the Brussels terror attacks. In June, the term was applied to a coup attempt in Turkey and a terrorist attack in Nice, France. The largest spike in “surreal” lookups occurred in November following the US presidential election.

Other Words of the Year

So, what do you think? If you don’t like “gaslighting,” it’s all in your head. Feel free to check out other dictionaries’ words of the year, like “Goblin mode” and “permacrisis.” Even Merriam-Webster didn’t stop at one word—also in the running based on search volume are terms like oligarch, Omicron, loamy, Queen Consort, raid, codify, and LGBTQIA.

Here are other words of the year, chosen by various lexicon powerhouses:

  • Cambridge Dictionary: homer. On May 5, 2022, “homer” was the answer to that day’s Wordle. More than 65,000 searches were conducted for “homer” that day, with the majority of searchers living outside North America where baseball and its terminology isn’t as popular as other sports.
  • Collins Dictionary: permacrisis. Defined as “an extended period of instability and insecurity,” permacrisis was chosen as Collins Dictionary’s word of the year because it reflects ongoing issues in the world, such as political instability, climate change, and the cost-of-living crisis.
    • Also in the running for word of the year were Kyiv, quiet quitting, vibe shift, and Partygate.
  • Oxford English Dictionary: goblin mode. Goblin mode describes “unapologetically self-indulgent, lazy, slovenly, or greedy” behavior. Two years into the global COVID-19 pandemic, it was chosen as word of the year because it “captures the prevailing mood of individuals who rejected the idea of returning to ‘normal life'” post-pandemic.
    • Runner-up terms include metaverse and #IStandWith. OED’s word of the year was chosen by public vote, and “goblin mode” won 93% of the more than 340,000 votes cast.
  • woman. Ongoing discussions over transgender rights had more people than ever searching gendered terms. “Woman” was crowned word of the year after a 1,400% increase in searches in 2022.