Teaching Profession

‘Gaslighting’ Is the Word of the Year. Did It Haunt Schools, Too?

By Elizabeth Heubeck — November 29, 2022 3 min read
The highlighted word "Gaslighting" and showing part of its definition to include the word "manipulation" on a computer screen.
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Teachers, the 2022 word of the year may make you cringe.

The winner, announced Nov. 28 by dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster, is gaslighting.

It’s defined by Merriam-Webster as “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.” The term originated from the 1938 British play “Gas Light” and the subsequent 1940 and 1944 films, “Gaslight,” depicting a husband’s attempt to manipulate his bride into thinking she is going insane.

Though not new, the term gaslighting has surged in popularity. Merriam-Webster reported a 1740 percent increase in searches for the word during the past year.

“It’s a word that has risen so quickly in the English language and especially in the last four years, that it actually came as a surprise to me and to many of us,” Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster’s editor, told The Associated Press.

(Oxford University Press, which publishes the Oxford English Dictionary, will release its word of the year soon. Final contenders are metaverse, goblin mode, and #IStandWith.)

But for teachers, gaslighting’s quick ascent in the American lexicon over the past year likely comes as no surprise. A quick perusal of the digital landscape—from blogs to social media channels like Twitter and TikTok—turns up countless posts describing teachers and schools as either being the perpetrators or targets of gaslighting. Here are a few highlights—or rather, lowlights:

“Dissident Teacher” posted this rant on Twitter just days ago; here’s an excerpt: “Dump public school; it’s an abusive relationship with constant gaslighting of your kid and your parenting.”

Teachers also describe being on the receiving end of gaslighting:

“Society gaslights teachers into pouring all of their waking hours into their jobs without financial compensation because we should ‘do it for the kids.’ We’re being passive-aggressively bullied into giving everything we are at the expense of our mental and physical health and our relationships. We’re told to practice self-care, and then we’re given more ‘duties as assigned,’ English teacher Jennifer Jones wrote on Medium.

Matthew Lynch describes a similar experience in the Edvocate: “If you work in the field of education in the capacity of a teacher, professor, education administrator, etc., you know all too well what gaslighting is,” he wrote. “Although I am no longer employed at a school or university, I remember the feeling of being labeled as whiny when I complained about the lack of resources, the low pay, and the lack of schoolwide discipline.”

Merriam-Webster chooses its words of the year in part by the number of searches on its website. Many other words deemed popular by Merriam-Webster in 2022 rose in prominence as a result of a given event. For instance, “raid,” another trending word this year identified by Merriam-Webster, saw a significant uptick in online searches by consumers when the FBI searched former President Donald Trump’s property, Mar-a-Lago.

But with gaslighting, Sokolowski told reporters that no single news event resulted in its surging popularity. Instead, the term just kept showing up in news and social media posts.

That doesn’t reflect well on our collective mood. Ben Zimmer, chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society, told Book Riot that choosing a Word of the Year is “a reflection of how language is encompassing the zeitgeist of the times.”

New years tend to breed optimism. So let’s hope that popular words that emerge in 2023—especially those used to describe schools and educators—lean more toward descriptions of trust and transparency than deceit and deception.

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