Merriam-Webster’s Word of 2022 is “Gaslighting”

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Ellie Gladson-Pang, Staff Writer

The U.S. dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster has announced their word of the year for 2022: “gaslighting”. Lookups for the word on merriam-webster.com increased 1,740% in 2022 over 2021, reflecting a trend recognizable in popular culture. However, this seemingly laughable and insignificant word can actually reveal something important about the year of Twitter trolls, conspiracy theories, and internet interconnectedness, as we see online gaslighting twist words in a negative light to attempt to shift opinions. 

America’s oldest dictionary publisher, Merriam-Webster, has released a list of 10 words of the year from the English language annually, since 2003. The words, originally determined by the number of times a word was viewed and searched on Merriam-Webster’s website but now by an online poll, are highly anticipated by the public. The selection is entirely dependent on a general consensus; clearly the most popular words are reflective of events that occurred during the year, that make an impact on the lives of voters.

So what is gaslighting exactly? 

Merriam-Webster themselves define the word to mean the “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.” 

Drawing on this theory, positing the word of the year’s summative quality, a few things can be assumed about 2022 as a year. Clear points like psychological manipulation, mental stability, and valid thought are obvious. And this perception of 2022 wasn’t far off; topics akin to these were discussed at length in the national news conversation. For instance, political manipulation, and the resulting political demographic shifts that occurred in 2022, display the evident parallels between the word and the year.

Just these past few months in the midterm election season, Georgia Senate candidate Herschel Walker was extremely prolific in his spreading of misinformation concerning the 2020 presidential election; Walker’s promotion of false conspiracy theories on both Fox News and Twitter perpetuates the far-right effort of the past few years to influence Americans and twist their political allegiances. 

During a Fox News appearance, Walker said, “I can guarantee you, Joe Biden didn’t get 50 million people voting for him. But yet people think that he’s won this election.” 

This claim is far from the truth—President Biden won with over 81 million votes. Herschel Walker’s claims have aided the spread of 2020 election misinformation to voters and incited conspiracy theorists, mirroring a pattern of the past few years. Spreading political misinformation is a prominent form of gaslighting witnessed this year, as candidates attempt to manipulate voter opinions by casting doubt on related facts. Prominent political figures and low-impact internet commenters alike amplify twisted facts like this. Each platform that perpetuates false statements through gaslighting and manipulative language contributes to the harm to the voting public; misinforming voters leads to possible greater shifts in power, if the information can sway any one person’s vote in an election.

While on the topic of Twitter and valid thought, it should be mentioned that the social media platform’s prominence in 2022 is also highly reflective of the apparent themes of the year. 

Controversial entrepreneur Elon Musk completed his acquisition of Twitter in October, and has since had a major impact on both the site itself and the international digital space. Even excluding the thousands of employee layoffs from the company, including essential engineers for making critical comments, sometimes by Tweet, chaos has been widespread. 

Within 48 hours of his takeover, Musk tweeted an anti-LGBTQ conspiracy theory concerning the attack on Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Paul Pelosi. Though he deleted the tweet, it had already sparked far-right figures to attempt to renew a culture of anti-LGBTQ speech on the platform.

After Musk tweeted a comment about technical issues on the app, staff software engineer Eric Frohnhoefer responded with a correction and possible solutions. Soon after, a Tweet from Musk stated that he was fired, which was how Frohnhoefer was ultimately informed of his termination. 

Also soon after Musk’s Twitter acquisition, another significant issue arose with a new app feature, which enabled access to Twitter Blue, a service including blue-check verification for $7.99. Impersonators soon arose, including one user who successfully impersonated the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly. This user tweeted that the company’s insulin would be made free; consequently, their stock dropped rapidly, and the company lost over $15 billion.

Musk’s brash actions since his acquisition of such a popular hub of free thought have garnered serious consequences for all types of users, from pharmaceutical giants to employed engineers. The brazen direction Musk has taken the company fosters a culture of questioning the validity of thoughts shared on the site, as well as questioning one’s own opinions and validity of thought; clearly a hidden example of an environment of gaslighting.

Internet interconnectedness and rampant misinformation interspersed the news around these events, demonstrating even further the synonymity of the word “gaslight” and the year 2022. As Elon Musk attempts to gaslight his staff and the users of his app, and as Herschel Walker attempts to gaslight the voting citizens of the United States, we are clearly being forced to acknowledge the validity of Merriam-Webster’s analysis.

If there is one thing to learn from a dictionary this year, it’s that we cannot afford to count out how language and human communication can reflect society and the world. So what might the word of 2023 be? “Misinformation”? “Conspiracy”? Despite the invisible nature of this clear form of manipulation, gaslighting has enormous repercussions in public perception, especially as the internet broadens the connectedness of new ideas and new opinions. What we should really learn from the examples of gaslighting that are becoming more clear in 2022, is the unbounded harm it can cause our society, when it causes people to stray from their own opinions in favor of misinformed and dangerous conspiracies. Gaslighting needs to stop in the political and social spheres, and transparency needs to take the forefront of social and news media platforms in 2023.

 

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