In this age of misinformation—of “fake news,” conspiracy theories, Twitter trolls, and deepfakes—gaslighting has emerged as a word for our time.
A driver of disorientation and mistrust, gaslighting is “the act or practice of grossly misleading someone especially for one’s own advantage.” 2022 saw a 1740% increase in lookups for gaslighting, with high interest throughout the year.
Its origins are colorful: the term comes from the title of a 1938 play and the movie based on that play, the plot of which involves a man attempting to make his wife believe that she is going insane. His mysterious activities in the attic cause the house’s gas lights to dim, but he insists to his wife that the lights are not dimming and that she can’t trust her own perceptions.
When gaslighting was first used in the mid 20th century it referred to a kind of deception like that in the movie. We define this use as:
: 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
But in recent years, we have seen the meaning of gaslighting refer also to something simpler and broader: “the act or practice of grossly misleading someone, especially for a personal advantage.” In this use, the word is at home with other terms relating to modern forms of deception and manipulation, such as fake news, deepfake, and artificial intelligence.
The idea of a deliberate conspiracy to mislead has made gaslighting useful in describing lies that are part of a larger plan. Unlike lying, which tends to be between individuals, and fraud, which tends to involve organizations, gaslighting applies in both personal and political contexts. It’s at home in formal and technical writing as well as in colloquial use:
Patients who have felt that their symptoms were inappropriately dismissed as minor or primarily psychological by doctors are using the term “medical gaslighting” to describe their experiences and sharing their stories.— The New York Times, 28 March 2022
The “I’m sorry you feel that way” approach, along with avoiding an argument in lieu of admitting fault, is good old fashioned gaslighting. — Psychology Today, 29 March 2022
My Committee’s investigation leaves no doubt that, in the words of one company official, Big Oil is ‘gaslighting’ the public. These companies claim they are part of the solution to climate change, but internal documents reveal that they are continuing with business as usual. — Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, Chairwoman of the Committee on Oversight and Reform, 14 September 2022
After their fight awkwardly cleared the daybed, the two parted ways and Genevieve caught Victoria up on the unexpected blowout. “He told me I’m gaslighting him. I’ve never even been told that in my life,” Gen said. “Yeah that’s a big word to use… He doesn’t know what that means. He’s just using a buzzword, he’s stupid. He’s dumb,” Victoria replied. — Nicole Gallucci, Decider (decider.com), 2 November 2022
English has plenty of ways to say “lie,” from neutral terms like falsehood and untruth to the straightforward deceitfulness and the formally euphemistic prevarication and dissemble, to the innocuous-sounding fib. And the Cold War brought us the espionage-tinged disinformation.
In recent years, with the vast increase in channels and technologies used to mislead, gaslighting has become the favored word for the perception of deception. This is why (trust us!) it has earned its place as our Word of the Year.
With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, countries including the U.S. and United Kingdom placed sanctions on Russian oligarchs and their families. Lookups for oligarch spiked 621% in early March 2022.
In its Greek roots oligarchy literally means “rule by the few.” In English the word can carry the same meaning, but it also has a meaning specific to Russia and other countries that succeeded the Soviet Union:
: one of a class of individuals who through private acquisition of state assets amassed great wealth that is stored especially in foreign accounts and properties and who typically maintain close links to the highest government circles
The World Health Organization uses Greek letters (alpha, beta, gamma, delta) to designate variants of the COVID virus. In November 2021, it used omicron, the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet, to name the most recent version of the virus. That variant became one of the most widespread forms of COVID in 2022.
Major spikes in lookups accompanied a surge in cases in early January, and following reports in November that the omicron booster was not significantly more effective than the older vaccines.
Endemic, used to describe a disease that is constantly present in a particular place, increased 874% in January.
Lookups for codify increased 193% for the year in 2022, driven by the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade on June 24th.
Codify refers to a process by which Congress can make laws; the word literally means “to make a code” with code here essentially a synonym of “law.” Code ultimately comes from the Latin word codex, meaning “trunk of a tree,” referring to documents on wooden tablets.
There were several notable spikes in lookups of codify:
May 3 (leak of the draft of the Dobbs v. Jackson decision): 5347%
June 24 (the decision announcement): 1293%
June 30 (President Biden’s endorsement of ending the filibuster in order to codify the right to abortion): 8304%
We also saw spikes in other lookups connected to this story: abortion lookups were higher in June, and both take for granted and mercurial, used to describe Chief Justice John Roberts, were higher in May.
The acronym LGBTQIA adds some letters to the older and more familiar abbreviations LGBT and LGBTQ, with the full abbreviation standing for “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning (one's sexual or gender identity), intersex, and asexual/aromantic/agender.”
The abbreviation was looked up frequently (up 1178%) during the entire month of June, Pride month, when the rights, equality, and culture of LGBTQ people are celebrated around the world. Lookups also spiked in late November after the shooting at a gay nightclub in Colorado Springs. With LGBTQ and the longer acronym both used in news stories about the event, interest in the difference between the two was apparent. Overall, LGBTQIA saw an 800% increase over 2021.
In June, when a Google engineer claimed the company’s AI chatbot had developed a human-like consciousness, lookups of sentient increased 480%. The claim was vigorously denied by Google, and the engineer was placed on paid leave, but the question of how human-like AI is, or will be, became a topic of much interest.
2022 was also the year that many people discovered the joy in puzzling out five-letter words: both Wordle (in which the puzzler has six tries to identify one word) and Quordle (nine guesses to identify four words) sent people to the dictionary, with numerous seldom-searched-for words tapped out on keyboards everywhere. When loamy (“consisting of loam, a soil consisting of a friable mixture of varying proportions of clay, silt, and sand”) was a Quordle answer on August 29th, the entry surged 4.5 million percent. In May, the Quordle answer voilà inspired a lookup spike of 2.5 million percent.
When the FBI executed a search warrant at former president Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home in early August, the event was labeled by some as a “raid,” sending lookups of raid up 970%. The relevant meaning of raid, “a sudden invasion by officers of the law,” was used to suggest that the search was unfair. In late August the Justice Department responded to that charge by releasing a redacted affidavit, sending lookups of redact and redacted up 1000%.
For the remainder of the year, this story created additional spikes in lookups. The large quantity of documents—33 boxes’ worth—was often called a “trove” by journalists, a trove being a valuable collection, or more generally a large amount of something collected. Trove was up 344% for the year. Defenders of the former president accused the government of behaving like a banana republic—that is, like a small and despotically run country, driving a lookup increase of of 3750%.
The death of Queen Elizabeth II was the end of an era, and the focus of international attention and fascination. The public’s interest in the monarchy is often connected with the ceremonies and rituals of the institution, including coronations, royal weddings—and funerals. Among the most looked-up terms following the Queen’s death was pomp and circumstance, as images of processions and pageantry were broadcast around the world. Monarch itself was also looked up frequently.
Announcements of the Queen’s death acknowledged the new King and his wife, Camilla, referred to by her proper title of Queen Consort, and that term quickly shot to the top of lookups. Since England had not had a king since 1952, it’s understandable that this title was unfamiliar. Camilla is not the successor to the Queen, but is instead the wife of the reigning king. A parallel title for the husband of a reigning queen, prince consort, was the title held by the late Prince Philip.
Another royal milestone sent people to the dictionary in May and June to look up jubilee, meaning “a special anniversary.” The term described the official celebrations for Queen Elizabeth’s unprecedented 70th anniversary on the throne.