Words are an author’s paint and paintbrush; they’re our marble and chisel. But authors and other artists also create words. Shakespeare is said to have invented over 1700 words. Here’s a sampling of twenty of them, words like: scuffle, swagger, hot-blooded, eyeball, and bedazzled.
The word “gaslighting,” was given to us by Patrick Hamilton, a British playwright from the 1930s. He invented it not by including the word in one of his plays, but by writing a whole play that illustrated the concept.
The 1944 American film, Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, popularized the story. It’s a mystery-thriller that starts with an opera singer being murdered for her jewels. Her young niece, Paula, interrupts the killer who escapes without the jewels.
Years later, Paula (Ingrid Bergman) meets Gregory (Charles Boyer) in Italy and marries him. He takes her back to London to live in her aunt’s townhouse.
Then things turn bizarre. A picture disappears from the wall, and Gregory tells Paula she took it. She hears him walking in the attic where the dead aunt’s belongings are kept. She sees the gas light dim and brighten for no apparent reason. And he tells her she’s seeing and hearing things. He plants his watch in her purse and tells her she took it. She’s on the verge of being convinced she’s a kleptomaniac and going crazy when an inspector from Scotland Yard enters the scene.
In the end it becomes clear that Gregory murdered the aunt and he’s been looking for the jewels in the aunt’s townhouse.
In the parlance of today, Gregory was “gaslighting” Paula.
According to the Oxford Living Dictionary, to gaslight is to “manipulate (someone) by psychological means into doubting their own sanity.”
Wikipedia has an expanded definition: “Gaslighting or gas-lighting is a form of manipulation through persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying in an attempt to destabilize and delegitimize a target. Its intent is to sow seeds of doubt in the targets, hoping to make them question their own memory, perception, and sanity.”
You may have heard the word used a lot lately. We had an example yesterday when President Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer tried to convince us (despite the evidence of our eyes) that more people attended the 2017 inauguration than ever before in history.
At his first official White House briefing, he said: “This was the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period.”
Here’s the official trailer for Gaslight. The whole movie is available online.