The American Dialect Society met in January and chose dumpster fire as Word of the Year. The winner in the “Most Useful/Likely to Succeed” category was gaslight, a verb is defined as to “psychologically manipulate a person into questioning their own sanity.” (Of course linguists would use singular they.)
There was immediate pushback. On the ADS email list, John Baker asked, “What is the rationale for naming ‘gaslight’…? The word has been around for decades. Did it come to some special prominence in 2016?” Arnold Zwicky chimed in: “Over seven decades, in fact. The movie that’s the source of the expression came out in 1944.”
Similarly, when I posted the winners on Facebook, my friend Pat Raccio Hughes commented, “How is that on the list? Isn’t it supposed to be new stuff?” She added that she and her husband had been using it since 1990.
The society addressed this issue in its press release on the voting: “The words or phrases do not have to be brand-new, but they have to be newly prominent or notable in the past year.” So does that apply to gaslight?
Yes, I’d say. The new prominence came from Donald Trump’s habitual tendency to say “X,” and then, at some later date, indignantly declare, “I did not say ‘X.’ In fact, I would never dream of saying ‘X.’” As Ben Zimmer, chair of the ADS’s New Words Committee and language columnist for The Wall Street Journal, pointed out, The New Republic, Salon, CNN, The Texas Observer, and Teen Vogue (“Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America”) all used the metaphor as the basis for articles about Trump.
The New York Times first used the common gerund form, gaslighting, in 1995, in a Maureen Dowd column. But there were only nine additional uses through May of last year. From June 2016 through the end of the year, the Times used gaslighting 10 times, including a Susan Dominus essay called “The Reverse-Gaslighting of Donald Trump,” which riffed on Hillary Clinton’s line in a September debate: “Donald, I know you live in your own reality.”
As so often happens when you get a lot of language observers together, the discussion shifted: from whether gaslight was newly prominent to precisely how old its verb use is. The history begins with Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play Gas Light (known in the United States as Angel Street). It inspired a 1940 British film and the more famous 1944 American production, directed by George Cukor and starring Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten, and Charles Boyer. (Spoiler alert.) The Boyer character tries to drive the Bergman character (his wife) crazy, notably by insisting that the gaslights in their house did not flicker, when in fact they did.
But there is no verb gaslight in Gaslight. As I noted on the ADS email list, in response to Baker and Zwicky, this use emerged some 20 years later, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Its first citation is a sentence from a 1965 article in the magazine The Reporter: “Some troubled persons having even gone so far as to charge malicious intent and premeditated ‘gaslighting.’” The quotation marks around the word are a sign that it was a recent coinage.
Jonathan Lighter, editor of The Historical Dictionary of American Slang, responded that he had noted in the book an oral use from 1956, by a 41-year-old woman, revealed to be none other than his mother. Lighter also said he has a strong memory of the verb’s being used in an episode of I Love Lucy the same year. That set Ben Zimmer to work. He posted:
There’s a 1956 I Love Lucy episode called “Lucy Meets Charles Boyer,” in which Ricky conspires with Charles Boyer to make Lucy think that Boyer is merely a lookalike. There are obvious parallels to Gaslight, but I watched the episode here and I didn’t hear anything about “gaslighting.”
Bill Mullins replied: “I vaguely recall an episode of the The Lucy Show [a later Lucille Ball sitcom] in which gaslighting is a plot element.” Mullins went to Google and and found a web page titled “The Ten Best THE LUCY SHOW Episodes of Season Six” (perhaps proving that there is a web page for every conceivable topic). One of the 10 was “Lucy Gets Mooney Fired,” which aired in November 1967. The web page gives a plot summary and commentary:
Lucy inadvertently gets Mooney [Gale Gordon] fired after she covers up a bank shortage. To convince Cheever [the bank president] to give Mooney his job back, Lucy gives him the Gaslight treatment.
I love how kooky this episode is WITHOUT managing to insult its audience’s intelligence. Taking a cue from Gaslight (1944), Lucy decides to make Cheever think he has gone crazy, so that he’ll agree to rehire Mr. Mooney. The script itself isn’t that funny, but the bits Lucy does to make Cheever flip are great. This is, deservedly, a fan favorite.
The estimable Zimmer wasn’t done. Consulting with Josh Chetwynd, author of Totally Scripted: Idioms, Words, and Quotes From Hollywood to Broadway That Have Changed the English Language, which has an entry on gaslight, he located and watched a 1952 episode of The Burns and Allen Show called “Grace Buying Boat for George.” (It’s a tough job but somebody’s got to do it.) Zimmer wrote, “At 16:20 in the YouTube video, Harry (Fred Clark) says to Gracie, ‘Give him the gaslight treatment!’ and then explains what that means. A bit later you hear George say, ‘So they sold Gracie on the gaslight bit.’”
Still no verb, you’ll notice. Zimmer took care of that a few hours later:
Here’s an example of the verb “gaslight” in “The Grudge Match,” an episode of Gomer Pyle: USMC that aired on 12 Nov. 1965 (antedating OED’s 1969 cite for the verb, as well as the Dec. 1965 cite for the verbal noun).
Duke: You know, you guys, I’m wondering. Maybe if we can’t get through to the sarge we can get through to the chief.
Frankie: How do you mean?…
Duke: The old war on nerves. We’ll gaslight him.
Leading me to muse on the fascinating possibility that the writer of the Reporter piece heard the verb on Gomer Pyle and put it into print just a month later.
But then more detective work was done on the ADS list. Stephen Goranson discovered that an even earlier use of the verb far, in Anthony F.C. Wallace’s 1961 book, Culture and Personality:
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. While “gaslighting” itself may be a mythical crime, there is no question that any social attitude which interprets a given behavior or experience as symptomatic of a generalized incompetence is a powerful creator of shame[….]
(The OED has the quote but credits it to a 1969 reprint.)
In any case, the term was picked up, especially in reference to abusers of spouses, partners, and children, and was commonplace by 1990, when Pat Hughes reports starting to use it. I myself first heard it the year before, when, on assigment for Rolling Stone, I interviewed the 19-year-old Uma Thurman for Rolling Stone, who used it in a context I don’t recall. The word was new to me, and I meant to look it up, but I never got around to it.