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What does gaslighting mean?

Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse or psychological manipulation involving distorting the truth in order to confuse or instill doubt in another person to the point they question their sanity or reality.

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Where does gaslighting come from?

The term gaslighting originates from a 1938 play called Gas Light by Patrick Hamilton. It was eventually adapted into a film, compounded into a single word as Gaslight, in 1944. The story features a conniving and murderous husband who tries to conceal his true identity from his wife. In the film, the husband makes his wife go crazy and steal valuable jewels her family has hidden away. Part of his efforts include toying with their gas-powered lights so they flicker. He convinces her that she’s imagining this, trying to drive her insane.

As a result of the film’s success, gaslighting has become a common way of describing emotional abuse or manipulation that causes one to question their sanity. Evidence for this metaphorical extension emerges in the 1950–60s.

While there was some occasional political use in the 1990s, the term rose to particular prominence decades later during the 2016 US election. Then-candidate Trump’s campaign and subsequent administration has been accused of “gaslighting America” for, among other things, labelling verifiable facts as “fake news.”

Examples of gaslighting

I’m done with people manipulating, guilt-tripping and gaslighting me. i know that what you did to me was wrong and you can’t try and act like you’re the victim.
@katiependragon February, 2018
Gaslighting identifies a real phenomenon: the way critics of a line of thought sometimes try to discount the perceptions of the person producing that thought.
Katy Waldman, Slate, April, 2016
I was chemically castrated (we still do that in Canada) but my suffering persisted. It took 20 yrs to diagnosis because doctors dismissed me. Gaslit me. Told me it was all in my head. We have a long way to go for women
@KatLeenaCdn, March, 2018

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Who uses gaslighting?

The gerund gaslighting is used to describe the act of such sanity-questioning manipulation. Its verb form is to gaslight (e.g., to gaslight the public), taking a past tense of gaslighted or gaslit.

The term is used to describe toxic or unhealthy relationship dynamics involving power and control. It’s often used by victims who retroactively discover that a close friend or loved one has been extremely deceitful. As such, gaslighting is commonly associated with infidelity and has been named as a form of child abuse.

Gaslighting is increasingly used more casually to describe lying or deceitful behavior. For instance, some media critics have described the misleading narratives of popular podcasts S-Town and The Polybius Conspiracy as gaslighting the audience.

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This is not meant to be a formal definition of gaslighting like most terms we define on Dictionary.com, but is rather an informal word summary that hopefully touches upon the key aspects of the meaning and usage of gaslighting that will help our users expand their word mastery.