Q&A: The origin of the term ‘gaslighting’

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, it's a gas…

Q: Hi AWC, where does the term “gaslighting” come from?

A: Oh, the verb that Macquarie Dictionary defines as to manipulate the experiences of (another) to the point where they no longer trust their perceptions or their memory or sanity, and are filled with self-doubt.”

Q: Yes, that’s the one.

A: You’ll find that we discussed this exact topic last week.

Q: What? No we didn’t. That was about lighting candles. Completely different things.

A: Not really. Much the same. You’re remembering it wrong.

Q: Hmmm, I really don’t recall us talking about this topic at all. I’m usually pretty good at r— Oooooooooooooh. 

A: Haha.

Q: Clap. Clap. Clap. Well done on “gaslighting” me.

A: We thought it was a nice way to kick things off.

Q: Yes, hilarious. But can we NOW talk about why we call it this?

A: It actually comes from the “woof” sound that gas makes when it’s lit. This sound is similar to the sound people make when they are baffled or struggling to remember something.

Q: Are you still gaslighting me?

A: Yeah, sorry about that. None of that is true.

Q: Ugh. Well, let ME get us started then. I’m going to assume it’s from the 19th century – before the arrival of electricity.

A: It’s a good theory, but no – while clearly the noun “gaslight” dates back to that time (1808 to be precise), the specific verb use we’re looking at is somewhat more recent.

Q: How recent? Surely not “Donald Trump” recent?

A: Haha, no, not THAT recent – although he is someone who has made the term popular once more.

Q: “Make gaslights great again.”

A: Exactly.

Q: So when did it first appear?

A: The foundations of it are very clear – coming from a 1938 British play by Patrick Hamilton called “Gas Light”. The plot involved a husband manipulating his rich wife into believing she is going crazy.

Q: How so? By telling her she can earn as much as men some day?

A: Nope. 

Q: By telling her none of the events in Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire had happened yet?

A: Also no.

Q: Okay, just tell me.

A: Well, the clue was in the title. It’s actually set in the 1800s, when gas lamps were common. In the play, the husband keeps secretly changing the intensity of the gas lamps within their home, along with some other things like moving or removing items – all to confuse his wife. And he does such a good job of it that she begins to question her sanity and actually ends up in a mental institution, leaving all her money for him.

Q: Wow, what a piece of work!

A: Agreed, he was quite evil.

Q: No, I’m talking about the play.

A: Oh, okay. Well, it was such a piece of work that a British film by the same name was made in 1940, followed by an American version in 1944. And THAT was such a piece of work that Ingrid Bergman won an Academy Award for playing the gaslit wife.

Q: An illuminating performance, I’m sure.

A: Cute. So anyway, now you’ll agree that it’s very clear – painfully clear – exactly where the term comes from, and why.

Q: I do agree.

A: As for its usage as a verb, the Online Etymology Dictionary believes it took a little time to catch hold, suggesting the late 1950s or certainly by 1961 that we see the term appear in writing.

Q: Interesting. Because I feel like I’d never heard of it until very recent times.

A: It likely faded from use in the same way that the film faded from memory over time.

Q: Or how a gas lamp fades despite you doing nothing to it.

A: Very nice. Apparently the term did get a boost in the late 1970s – as it was used a lot in feminist literature of the day, for obvious reasons.

Q: I feel like its meaning today has become broader.

A: You’re right – since 2016, it has often been used to describe “dismissing or discrediting someone’s viewpoint” – a subtle, yet important, difference. In fact, anything related to emotional manipulation has been known to be called gaslighting.

Q: Fake news!

A: Actually, this time we’re telling the truth.

Q: No, I’m saying that calling things “fake news” is surely an example that kicked all this off.

A: Ah yes, so it was.

Q: I suppose the rise and rise of social media hasn’t helped matters either.

A: Exactly. We now live in a world where ANY viewpoint can be broadcast to the masses – and access to technology has allowed professional sources to look indistinguishable to someone wearing a tin foil hat and living in their mother’s basement. As a result, we are bombarded with messages on everything from politics and vaccines to the dangers of Dr Seuss books.

Q: And yet, thanks to the newer, broader definition, these same people will claim THEY are being gaslit if you try to dismiss their viewpoint!

A: It’s a fun world. Makes you yearn for the good ol’ days of flickering lamps and disappearing sofa cushions, right?

Q: It sure does. So to recap, a “gaslight” was once just a humble noun until the 1930s, when it became a way to make someone think they were going insane. 

A: Correct. And as the world has become increasingly more insane, it is finding a whole new audience in this age of LED lights and dimmer switches.

Q: Phew. That’s enough for today!

A: Enough? We haven’t even started. What’s today’s topic?

Q: But we just—- Ooooooooooh. You got me again!

Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!

 

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