In Victorian London, a husband wants to get rid of his wife so that he can take the valuable jewels she’s inherited from her late aunt without drawing attention to himself. As you can probably imagine, Victorian culture isn’t too kind to women—socially, legally, or emotionally. So he begins to play tricks on her to make her feel crazy, hoping to have her institutionalized, which would give him her power of attorney. Not a bad plan for a conniving, murderous sociopath! He begins by leaving the house for long periods of time without telling her where he’s going.
But the wife has an ally in the home itself: the sconce-light wall fixtures in the building use a common reserve of gas. Soon after her husband leaves, she hears footsteps from the locked upper floors, and the gas lights in the room she’s in flicker and dim. She realizes that he must be pretending to leave, but actually just going upstairs (and turning the lights on). She realizes she’s not crazy; he’s messing with her.
Thus goes the plot of the 1938 hit play Gas Light, adapted into numerous forms, including a radio play called Angel Street, an American play, and, most famously, a 1944 Best Picture–nominated movie starring Ingrid Bergman. The central conceit of the story touched a nerve—and the title of the story came to mean something outside the confines of the theater. According to a 1948 Miami News article about divorce proceedings, the plaintiff claimed that her husband “gave her the Gaslight treatment.” Research by the linguist Ben Zimmer uncovered casual usage of the term in a sitcom in 1952, and again in 1962. He also found a 1962 essay by Canadian anthropologist Anthony F. C. Wallace, who wrote: “It is also popularly believed to be possible to ‘gaslight’ a perfectly healthy person into psychosis by interpreting his own behavior to him as symptomatic of serious mental illness.” By the middle of the century, the title of the story had become verbal shorthand for its central narrative action.
Then, after falling out of common usage for 50 or so years, gaslight returned to the lexicon with gusto in the age of #MeToo and misinformation. Tracy Conner, a sociolinguistics professor at Northwestern whose research focuses on the connection between language and justice, calls the word “a long overdue tool” for social awareness. Conner has studied the process of gaslighting: what it means, how it works, and how to identify it on a linguistic level. Her working definition? “A form of conscious or subconscious psychological manipulation mediated through language or by the actions of a speaker with a perceived higher status that has the effect of invalidating or denying the interlocutors’ reality or lived experience in an interaction or interactions, with the impact of discrediting them within a micro or macro context.” A bit wordy, but quite thorough—Conner’s definition cuts to the core of the phenomenon, which uses language as a weapon in an epistemological war.
Language is ultimately a process by which we, as a community of human beings, co-construct our collective reality. Conner’s research has identified common phrases that indicate gaslighting, including You’re overreacting, You’re being too sensitive, and I’m sorry you feel that way. What these phrases have in common is they undermine a person’s instinctive emotional responses—an evolutionary warning of danger that’s just as real as a physiological response—by hijacking the space where these abstract emotional responses take form: language.
The word gaslight, then, becomes an essential weapon in fighting back. “The word materializes something that seems highly invisible,” Conner told me. “Having a word allows one to recognize that they are not alone in what they’re experiencing. If there’s a word for it, clearly this is a phenomenon that affects more than one person. And then it also gives an entry point for understanding the phenomena better, such that you can learn either tools for escape or learn to identify your tribe of people who can support you … It can provide agency for victims where they might not have been believed before.”
Although in most cases the word serves to expose implicit power dynamics and level the playing field, it can also be used to do the exact opposite. That’s thanks to a process called “semantic bleaching,” where a word’s true meaning gets diluted through imprecise and bad-faith usage. Conner gives the example of woke—a word that originally meant “socially and politically aware,” but now can be used to mean “sensitive” and “irrational about social and political issues” because of semantic bleaching by right-leaning media. Similarly, the word gaslight is at risk of getting reappropriated by the powers that be to undermine the very reality it seeks to expose and vindicate, as in this article, which accuses the Black Lives Matter movement of gaslighting the public. This dangerous process of semantic bleaching can lead to a vicious cycle in which the word loses its intended revolutionary power as it whirlpools into the vague oblivion of meaninglessness. The bleaching of gaslight has become so common that the word has been ironically appropriated in the “Gaslight, Gatekeep, Girlboss” meme, which satirizes the moral vagueness of the term to critique a certain strain of mainstream capitalist feminism.
So how can we stem the tide of semantic bleaching and preserve the integrity of our language? The key lies in looking at the power dynamics at play. When I heard Conner’s list of phrases that indicate gaslighting, I immediately located this type of language in stereotypes of emotionally abusive boyfriends. But she was quick to caution me against framing these dynamics as exclusively gendered. “I have been working on being as general as possible so that the definition can have staying power regardless of how society shifts,” she explained. She defines the gaslighter as “a speaker with a perceived higher status”—and although historically those speakers have mostly been male, it’s important to frame the act in a broader context so we can recognize it in any possible power dynamic.
A good rule of thumb in testing whether the word is being used correctly is to ask yourself if the supposed gaslighter is in a position of power. If not, it’s difficult to imagine a situation where gaslighting is really happening—just like it’s difficult to imagine Black Lives Matter activists, who are dedicated to acting on behalf of the powerless and vulnerable, engaging in gaslighting the American public. Unless it’s serving the interests of the powerful, gaslighting just doesn’t ring true. I wanted to express that idea in this Thursday clue: “Methodically manipulate someone with less power into questioning their own perception of reality.”