The American dictionary website, www.merriam-webster.com, regularly features words that are trending in dictionary searches. One recent example was gaslighting – not in the sense of the outdated mode of illuminating our city streets, but in the more recent definition of ‘manipulating someone psychologically into questioning their own sanity’. This usage arose out of the name of a 1938 play, and subsequent film, Gaslight, where a man convinces his wife that she is going insane by making the lights in their house flicker and dim unexpectedly. But why the revival of interest in the term? A quick look at online media shows that the #MeToo movement is at least partly responsible. Gaslighting has become widely used to describe, in general, any controlling behaviour by men towards women, and more particularly the strategy used by powerful males to discredit their accusers – thus adding psychological abuse to the claims of physical and sexual misconduct. It’s no wonder that people are having to resort to dictionaries to work out what this curiously derived word is about. Let’s hope that the connection with Victorian technology isn’t indicative of a slide back towards Victorian values in men’s treatment of women.
Dr Adam Smith is convenor of the Editing and Electronic Publishing Program at Macquarie University.Do you have an idea for a story?
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