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Gaslight: The Meaning of Merriam-Webster’s 2022 Word of the Year, Explained by a Dusty Old Play I Found in the Attic

a gaslight. Photo by Renè Müller on Unsplash

Ed. note: Perhaps unsurprising to most people with internet access, Merriam-Webster’s official word of 2022 is “gaslighting.” As with many of good ol’ M-W’s previous words of the year, this one gained popularity through overuse, which naturally gave way to rampant misuse—much to the dismay of many a licensed mental health professional. While considering how best to convey the true meaning of “gaslighting” to you, the avid reader, I stumbled upon a dusty old play in my attic that just so happens to perfectly illuminate (as it were) this culturally significant word.

Author’s Preface: “What Is Gaslighting?”

Salutations! My name is Merriam Webster. I am a 19th century playwright of significant critical renown—not to be confused with Merriam-Webster, the pair of dubious fools who made the dictionary. Verily I say, “gaslighting” is a form of manipulation wherein the malefactor deliberately misrepresents the truth to someone in order to make them question their sanity. In plain terms, it’s lying to someone in order to make them feel “crazy.” It is a tool of craven cowards and “huge dicks,” and I hope that my little play serves as an example of why you should ne’er do it.

As for the term itself, it is entirely original, and does NOT come from British novelist Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play, Gas Light, in which a husband attempts to convince his wife that she is going mad by telling her the dimming gaslights in their home are working normally. That is a silly idea, and if you think that, you’re crazy.

Did you see what I just did there? THAT’S how easy it is to gaslight someone, and that’s exactly why you SHOULDN’T DO IT.

GAS LIGHTS by Merriam Webster

SETTING: An elegant manor on a street in London

TIME: 1876 (but could also be now?)

Dramatis Personae:

Lord Reginald Featherstonehaugh – Mid 40s. A gentleman on the surface, hiding a black heart beneath.

Lady Jane Featherstonehaugh – Early to mid 30s. A former ballet dancer. Retired at doctor’s request due to her “nervous constitution.” Now sits at home and does nothing.

Bartholemew – Late 20s to early 30s. A man-servant. Sexy. Not very bright. Has hidden musical talent.

Act I, Scene Four.

REGINALD enters through the front door. He hands his coat and hat to his man-servant BARTHOLOMEW, who awaits him. REGINALD crosses the hall into the drawing room, where JANE is staring blankly at a wall. REGINALD warms himself by the fire.

Reginald: Beastly weather out there, eh wot! I daresay England has not seen a storm this great since Napoleon first invaded Corsica! Or was he exiled to Corsica? Or has he even been born yet? Oh, history! How you elude me!

He warms his hands for a little while longer.

Reginald: Bartholomew, be a good lad and put the kettle on, I fancy a spot of tea to warm up these cold crumpets I once knew as my hands!

BARTHOLOMEW exits stage right.

Reginald: Evening, Jane! My, my you’re looking positively peaked! Surely you must be contemplating some quaint notions that are far too advanced for your feminine brain to handle. Oh, the understanding of women! How you elude me! Surely you will tire yourself out! Do as I do, and simply think of nothing all day! For indeed, my penis is the only thing that qualifies me for any sort of agency in this play we call life! Yet my mind is unclouded by far-flung concepts such as “Aristotlean ethics” and “two plus two doth equal four.” And therefore, I enjoy my life!

JANE does not respond.

Reginald: Pray tell, Jane. Did you happen to catch a whiff of what Jean Pierre is cooking in the kitchen? I am ever so hungry!

JANE considers.

Jane: Your favorite, husband. Beans on toast with ketchup and garlic.

REGINALD appears to be taken aback.

Reginald: Beans on toast? With ketchup and garlic sauce? My favorite? Surely not! Wherever did you conjure up such a bizarre notion, my dear? Oh, understanding of my wife! How you elude me!

Jane: But … last night at dinner. We had beans on toast and you said that it was your favorite!

Reginald: Did I? How absurd! I certainly did not! Dear lady, you misremember! Just as you misremember last night’s meal! I told you as we supped on liver and onions that mustard sandwiches were my favorite! I abhor ketchup! Yet I shan’t allow myself to dine on mustard every night. One cannot eat dessert for dinner each night of the week. Therefore, we dined on onions.

Jane: But, Reginald … I am certain we dined on beans on toast last night. As we have done every night for the past 10 years.

The gaslight lamps in the room being flickering.

Reginald: Falsehood! I know this to be untrue. Just as I know it is indisputable fact that the gaslights in the room are NOT flickering! Oh, objective reality, how you do NOT elude me!

REGINALD turns from her and resumes warming his hands by the fire. BARTHOLOMEW enters from stage right. He speaks directly to the audience.

Bartholomew: Methinks the lady is being … gaslit.

BARTHOLOMEW pulls out a hurdy-gurdy and begins playing a mournful lament.

LADY JANE hears the music and rises. She begins to sway to the music. LORD REGINALD does not notice. She begins to sway more and more. Suddenly, she begins to dance. It is a slow and sensual ballet. She leaps about the room. She begins to dance on the tabletops. She vaults onto the chaise lounge and begins to do a jig. The music grows faster and faster. BARTHOLOMEW is sweating. He strips off his shirt, revealing his rippling, muscular physique. LADY JANE dances furiously now. She opens the china closet and begins throwing expensive lacquerware across the room. It shatters against the walls of the drawing room. The gaslights flicker faster. LORD REGINALD continues to warms his hands by the fire, oblivious. LADY JANE turns to him, her eyes are wild. She slinks up behind him, and pulls a burning hot poker from out of the fire place. She taps LORD REGINALD on the shoulder. He turns.

Jane: Lord Reginald, I DEMAND A DIVORCE!

She stabs REGINALD through the belly with the poker. He begins to hiss like a tea kettle. BARTHOLOMEW has begun to play Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy.” Flames lick at LORD REGINALD’s petticoat, and suddenly he is alight. He runs about the room, shrieking and burning.

Lord Reginald: Oh “being a good person,” how it has eluded me! Alas, I am toxic! Toxic, I say! And so I meet my fate! Toxic I lived, now toxic must I die!

He falls to the floor, dead. The music has stopped. LADY JANE stands over her husband’s corpse. She turns to BARTHOLOMEW.

Lady Jane: Wanna play checkers and maybe make out a little?

Bartholomew: Sure.

The gaslights flicker.

Lady Jane: Those gaslights just flickered, right?

Bartholomew: Sure did.

Lady Jane: Thought so. He probably forgot to pay the power bill again.

JANE kicks LORD REGINALD’s corpse.

Lady Jane: Asshole.

BLACKOUT.

(featured image: Renè Müller, Unsplash)

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