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Merriam-Webster's word of the year for 2022 is 'gaslighting'

The word 'gaslighting' appears on a sign. It is Merriam-Webster's word of the year for 2022.
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The word 'gaslighting' appears on a sign. It is Merriam-Webster's word of the year for 2022.

A great word of the year will capture a moment in time. Like Merriam-Webster's 2021 word of the year, which was vaccine.

The Springfield, Massachusetts-based dictionary announced its pick for the 2022 word on Monday. Merriam-Webster's senior editor, Emily Brewster, explained what goes on behind the scenes in the selection process.

Emily Brewster, Merriam-Webster: Merriam-Webster's word of the year is based on data. It is based on which words are looked up at merriamwebster.com over the course of that year and then those numbers — for how often a particular word is looked up — are compared to previous years and especially to the previous year.

Carrie Healy, NEPM: Before we get to the actual word of the year, for 2022, have people steadily looked this word up in that online dictionary throughout 2022? Or have the searches surged in relation to a news cycle or other current events?

The answer to that question is both. This year's word of the year, as is often the case, is a word that has had high sustained interest throughout the year, but that also has had instances that are tied to particular news events or to the use of the word in the news by pundits and journalists. And the lookups of the word are driven by general interest and then also by specific interest tied to events.

Okay, so what is the word of the year?

The word of the year this year, is gaslighting.

Your definition and derivation of gaslighting?

The word gaslighting has multiple meanings. The word in most recent use has come to mean 'the act or practice of grossly misleading someone, especially for a personal advantage.' Now the word has an older meaning that is tied more closely to its etymology, which is Hollywood, actually.

The older meaning is a more technical meaning, so I'm going to give that one to you also. It is '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.'

So folks who are looking up the word, would they be familiar with the word or are they looking for other uses of the word? What explains their searches?

We never know exactly why people are going to the dictionary to look things up, but we have some very, very clear ideas of the general reason why if people are searching a word like gaslighting, they certainly have heard the word. They know how to how to spell it, they know how to type it into their search bar. But what seems clear is that people have been encountering the word gaslighting a great deal in 2022. And so we believe that they are looking for a greater understanding of what the word's meaning is.

If the word's meaning is shifting, which it actually has in recent years, it's kind of gone from that really pointed psychology-related use to a kind of broader, more flattened meaning. And they're curious about, probably, where it comes from. And the word does have a very interesting derivation.

It comes from the name of a play and a movie based on the play called "Gaslight." And in this play, which starred Ingrid Bergman (movie dated 1944, I think) she is being kind of tormented by her husband who is going into the attic of the house that they live in, to search for her dead aunt's jewels. And every time he goes into the attic, the gaslights in the house dim, but he denies that he's going into the attic, in fact, denies any kind of strange behavior on his own part. And he is working very hard to convince her that she cannot rely on her own sense of what is going on, that her perception of reality is skewed and that she is going insane.

It is the word of our time. So I imagine that there is a whole list of other words who were probably runners up in some way but didn't make that top spot.

A personal favorite that was high in our data but did not make our final list is the word sus. S-u-s. Carrie, are you familiar with this word?

Well, I have teenagers.

So you are, yes, of course. What does it mean when someone is suss?

One of my kids texted it to me and I'm like, is this another one of those things I just totally don't get?

Right, some autocorrect function? (Laughing)

And it wasn't.

It means suspicious, right? If someone is sus, they are acting in a way that that suggests that they might be guilty of doing something. And the word sus was high in our lookups at merriamwebster.com throughout the year, but not as high as some of these others.

The word came to popularity because of the game 'Among Us,' which is a really fun multiplayer game. There are crew members on a spaceship in the first iteration of the game anyway, and you have to figure out which one is the one who is offing everybody. Somebody is assigned to be the the killer and they are actually going around killing all the other crew members as the crew members are trying to complete these tasks. Now, when you play the game, you don't know who has been assigned to be the killer. And it may very well be you. So it could be anyone in the game. And so the word sus first came to prominence in this century because of this game 'Among Us' where everyone is sus because with their little figure is doing in this game.

But the word is 100 years old. It's been a shortened word of suspicious for actually a long time. It just was simmering below the surface of the most common words in the language residing solely in more obscure slang use.

Carrie Healy hosts the local broadcast of "Morning Edition" at NEPM. She also hosts the station’s weekly government and politics segment “Beacon Hill In 5” for broadcast radio and podcast syndication.