This was not actually Merriam-Webster's word of the year
See what I did there?
Copyright 1944 Loew's Incorporated, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
As a kid, I used to scurry down to our living room early weekday mornings before my brother was awake. I'd carefully rock the 60-ton hard copy of the Random House Dictionary back and forth to extract it from between its neighbors on the bookshelf, haul it over to the couch, and just...read . For fun. (True fact. Ask my dad.)
It was so big, it left marks in my flesh as the hardcover corners pressed into my belly and my thighs.
It was wonderful.
I've always been fascinated with words, their history, their evolution. I eagerly read Grammar Girl, and the announcements of new words added to the dictionary each month (did you know that self-care only hit the dictionary in 2018?). And of course there are various publications' roundups of the top words that capture hearts and minds at the end of each year. One of my proudest accomplishments was when Jodi Kantor (yes, that Jodi Kantor!) cited an essay of mine on Mom-101 as popularizing one of the New York Times' 2006 words of the year, Sanctimommy. She wrote that I provided "an authoritative dissection of the term" and honestly, I could have just stopped writing there and then. That was my Super Bowl Ring, my Nobel Prize, my People's Choice Award all wrapped up in one.
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I love language -- how it evolves, changes, how fluid it is. I love language debates. I love when we all share our least favorite words. (“Tube steak,” hands down. Shudder ) I love that “they” is now acceptably used as a singular indefinite pronoun antecedent, considering its use goes back to the 14th century. I love how GenZ is pushing our language to its limits — Nouns as adjectives! Pronouns as exclamations! Cats and dogs, living together! — in some fantastic ways.
Of course I then love the words of the year, because they are essential keys to understanding this moment in time and culture; a snapshot of where we are and where we may be headed.
And so yesterday, I joined the world wide word nerd web in nodding, somewhat sadly, at the reveal of the Merriam-Webster Word of 2022:
: 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 act or practice of grossly misleading someone, especially for a personal advantage.
It was the winning word because “2022 saw a 1740% increase in lookups for gaslighting” and that’s not surprising at all.
If you really want to understand the origination of the term, especially the first definition, stream the 1944 drama, Gaslight -- my 15-year-old and I watched together this summer and it holds up remarkably well for an 80 year old picture.
If you want to understand the second, broader definition, just look around…everywhere. Especially at some of the most objectively disturbing, disruptive, chaos-creating people wielding power right now.
Gaslighters are particularly sinister because they don’t just mislead; they manipulate, they control, they aim to cause psychological harm. (All the better to dominate you with, my dear.) And one of the greatest tools of the gaslighter is the use and misuse of words — the ability to mess with subtext and connotation, and to break down our shared understanding of language.
Gaslighting can be about saying things, then trying to convince you they weren’t said.
Gaslighting can be about saying things that you know are objectively false, then repeating them until they start to seem plausible.
In fact, “dog whistle” could have been a contender for word of the year this year.
Also, “plausible deniability.”
Then, as I worked through this post in my head last night, here’s what I woke up to this morning.
There will be denials. There will be gaslighting. You’ll see. As Orwell put it most famously: The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.
Please make note of the “winks.” Make sure you don’t ignore them. And if someone from a marginalized group tells you they’re hearing the dog whistle, believe them.
Maybe the 2023 word of the year will be decency.