Gaslighting Origin of Term

Gaslighting is a colloquialism, loosely defined as making someone question their own reality.
The term may also be used to describe a person (a “gaslighter”) who presents a false narrative to another group or person which leads them to doubt their perceptions and become misled (generally for the gaslighters’ own benefit), disoriented or distressed. Generally, this dynamic is only possible when the audience is vulnerable, such as in unequal power relationships, or when the audience is fearful of the losses associated with challenging the false narrative. Gaslighting is not necessarily malicious or intentional, although in some cases it is.

Origin of Term

The term is derived from the 1944 film Gaslight, which is a story about a husband who uses trickery to convince his wife that she is mentally unwell in order to steal from her.

Gaslight/gaslighting was largely an obscure or esoteric term until more recently, when it broadly seeped into English lexicon. According to the American Psychological Association, the term “once referred to manipulation so extreme as to induce mental illness or to justify commitment of the gaslighted person to a psychiatric institution but is now used more generally”. The term is now simply defined as “to make someone question their reality”.

The New York Times first used the common gerund form, gaslighting, in Maureen Dowd’s 1995 column. However, there were only nine additional uses in the following twenty years. The American Dialect Society recognized the word gaslight as the “Most Useful” new word of the year in 2016. Oxford University Press named gaslighting as a runner-up in their list of the most popular new words of 2018.