I was reading Anna Quindlen’s ‘The Last Word’ column in this week’s Newsweek
when I came across a use of the word GASLIGHT
that I had not seen before. In discussing some of the trauma left over from 9/11, especially for those living in New York City, she said:
<2006 “And then there are the millions of horrified bystanders who remember the fighter jets overhead, . . . the fear of being cut off from friends far away, the greater fear for those close by. Our children’s schools now send home instructions for cataclysm . . . Want to gaslight us? Blow smoke through our heating vents while a dozen ambulances wail by on the street.”—‘Newsweek,’ 28 August, page 100>
Firstly, I never heard GASLIGHT
used as a verb before and, secondly, this use, which, just guessing from the context, might mean something like ‘scare the bejesus out of,” is at odds with the usual calm and peaceful connotations of the word. The noun GASLIGHT
is, of course, the light produced by the combustion of illuminating gas or the gas lamp itself – the usual form of lighting in buildings and streets before the advent of the electric light bulb. I recall from years ago a New York City radio program called ‘Gaslight Review’ which was renowned for its soothing music. And I have seen several restaurants over the years with the name ‘The Gaslight.’ And Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary
provides as its sample sentence “the mellow radiance of gaslight.” So how did this quiet word GASLIGHT
go from peaceful to scary?
Using our Wordwizard search function, I found that the verb form of GASLIGHT
had been discussed, but I noticed that the original question had not been answered. So, I figured I would answer it and while I was at it provide a little more detail (repeating a bit of what Susumu had to say above) along with my standard serving of juicy quotes, which in this instance I found particularly interesting — What! You say they put you to sleep?
Blame the deterioration in the peacefulness of the meaning of GASLIGHT
on Patrick Hamilton’s 1939 play which was made into a movie called – you guessed it – Gaslight
(starring Anton Walbrook in the 1940 British version, and Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer in the 1944 Hollywood hit)! In the play/movie a cruel and greedy husband, eager for an inheritance, attempts to drive his wife insane by causing her to mistrust her senses and appear insane so that her murder will be interpreted as a suicide. One of the devices this miserable SOB used to make his wife, much to her confusion and dismay to think she was losing it, was to periodically dim the gaslights in their house – was it real or was she imagining it? So in answer to the original question it was the film that inspired the term and not vice versa as was suggested.
(sometimes capitalized) verb transitive [1950s and still in use]: To attempt to frighten, manipulate, or confound by psychological means in a manner so as to make the victim question his or her own sanity; to confuse someone, causing them to feel they are going crazy; to deceive someone systematically.
<1956 “To GASLIGHT someone is to play tricks on them to make them think they’re crazy. It comes from the movie Gaslight.” (N.Y.C. women, age 41)—in 'Historical Dictionary of American Slang,' page 868>
<1965 “Some troubled persons have even gone so far as to charge malicious intent and premeditated ‘GASLIGHTING.’”—‘The Reporter,’ 2 December, page 32>
<1969 "It is also popularly believed to be possible to ‘GASLIGHT’ a perfectly healthy person into psychosis by interpreting his own behavior to him as symptomatic of serious mental illness."—'Changing Perspectives in Mental Illness' by S. C. Plog,page 83>
<1978 “‘GASLIGHTING’: The Art of Disorienting Your Antagonist.’”—‘How to Get the Upper Hand’ by Charell, page 23>
<before 1987 “You gonna be GAS-LIGHTED by dese spooks.”—‘National Lampoon,’ December, page 16>
<1988 “She felt as if she were being Gaslighted.”—‘Rich Men, Single Women’ by P. Beck & P. Massman, page 310>
<1995 “Newt Gingrich takes movies very seriously. . . So it is passing strange he does not recognize that something is happening to him straight out of the movies. He is being Gaslighted. Hasn’t he seen the 1944 psychological thriller ‘Gaslight,’ in which Ingrid Bergman marries Charles Boyer, a murderer who systematically tries to make her think she is losing her mind? It dawned on the Democrats early on that a GASLIGHT strategy could be effective, when Mr. Gingrich made that crack about how women cannot serve in combat because they get infections, while men 'are basically little piglets’ who are ‘‘biologically driven to go out and hunt giraffes.' When he wrote books about pouting sex kittens, dodos and honeymoons in space, the Democrats figured it would be a cinch to push him over the edge.’”—‘New York Times,’ 26 November, page E11>
<1997 “He's very artful at GASLIGHTING . . . You feel like you're the one that's going crazy—like you're the one who's done something wrong.”—‘Vanity Fair.’ September, page 328/2>
<2000 "He ‘GASLIGHTED’ Christina, humiliated and mentally tortured her, and shamelessly went after her money pretending to be investing it for her."—'The Spectator,' 1 April, page 72/2>
<2003 “Is Condi GASLIGHTING Rummy? [[article title]] . . . The presidents foreign policy duenna and his grumpy grampy over at the Pentagon are suddenly mud wrestling. . . In this delicious gender-bender, Condoleezza Rice triumphs as the macho infighter, driving Rummy into a diva-like meltdown.”—‘New York Times,’ October, page A37>
(Historical Dictionary of American Slang, Oxford English Dictionary, Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang
, Chapman’s Dictionary of American Slang
, and other sources)
Ken G – August 21, 2006