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Opinion: The lost meaning of 'gaslighting' is an alarm bell, constantly ringing

Editor's Note: (Nicole Hemmer is an associate professor of history and director of the Carolyn T. and Robert M. Rogers Center for the Study of the Presidency at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of "Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics" and the forthcoming "Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s." She cohosts the history podcasts "Past Present" and "This Day in Esoteric Political History." The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.)

(CNN) Merriam-Webster has named "gaslighting" its word of the year.

The decision to crown "gaslighting" in 2022 may feel a little late. The term became the go-to way of describing former President Donald Trump's devotion to creating false realities through repeated lies all the way back in 2016. As one of the first people to apply the term to Trump's rejection of reality (in a viral piece for US News & World Report in March 2016), I've paid attention as the word entered the political lexicon and broadened until it became, essentially, a synonym of "lying."

Nicole Hemmer

But in that broadening, something has been lost. A particular moment spurred me to think of Trump's habitual dissembling in gaslighting terms. A week before I wrote that column, video appeared to show Trump's campaign manager Corey Lewandowski roughly grabbing Breitbart writer Michelle Fields, forcing her out of his way after a press conference. (After battery charges were filed by police, the state's attorney decided there was not enough evidence to pursue criminal charges. Lewandowski denied touching Fields.)

The incident was filmed and the video widely circulated. Yet when I came home and turned on the news that night, there was Trump, denying that it had happened. I was so confused that I hopped online to make sure I hadn't mistaken what I had seen (I was not yet acclimated to Trump's steady stream of lies).

The disorientation I felt in that moment reminded me of gaslighting, a term derived from the 1938 play "Gas Light" (later turned into a film), which depicted a husband psychologically torturing his wife to the point that she questions her own grasp of reality. In the cases of both "Gas Light" and the Lewandowski incident, the core question was one of men menacing women. Those connotations made the term especially apt for Trump, who has faced dozens of allegations of sexual harassment and assault (which he has denied) and regularly attacked women in his speeches.

But that aspect of gaslighting did not make it into the popular understanding of the word. The team at Merriam-Webster argues that it caught on because it describes a particular type of lying that defined the past several years in US politics: "The idea of a deliberate conspiracy to mislead has made gaslighting useful in describing lies that are part of a larger plan." That it has roots in domestic abuse is relegated to part of what Merriam-Webster describes as the word's "colorful" origins.

Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman in 1944 film, "Gaslight."

This loss of context for a single word might not feel urgently important -- after all, words evolve as they work their way from novel to commonplace to, eventually, trite (as the word "gaslighting" now feels after years of overuse). But in a culture where histories of abuse are regularly erased -- even five years into the #MeToo movement -- the erasure feels significant.

Gaslighting describes a particular type of psychological abuse, where the abuser repeatedly undermines and contradicts the victim's perception of the world, to the point where she questions her own experiences and memories. In the play "Gas Light," the goal was to swindle the woman out of money. But the broader purpose is to make women uncertain and dependent, to render them unreliable narrators of their own experiences — especially experiences of abuse, harassment and assault.

Gaslighting, then, is a fundamental element in the infrastructure of a culture that does not believe women. That's why the phrase "believe women" became such a powerful rallying cry during the #MeToo movement — not because women cannot lie or make mistakes, but because undermining women's credibility had been a key tool of abuse.

While women are gaslighting's main victims, its consequences extend much further. The space where domestic abuse most quickly disappears is around public violence, in particular mass shootings. Studies show that domestic violence is deeply entwined in mass shootings: The majority of perpetrators have histories of domestic violence. Domestic homicide or attempted homicide often precedes mass shootings (as was the case in Uvalde and Sandy Hook) and domestic violence-related mass shootings are deadlier than other mass shootings.

And yet when it comes to public debate about mass shootings, addressing domestic violence is seldom near the top of the list. That's possibly because mass shootings, though relatively common in the US, are rare compared to rates of domestic violence: according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 41% of women and 26% of men experience intimate-partner violence. Domestic violence in the United States is so common, it seems, that it quickly disappears from public consciousness.

The #MeToo movement focused less on domestic abuse than workplace abuse, ranging from sexual harassment to rape. As the movement emerged, many men were shaken that so many of the women they knew had experienced abuse. And yet even in a moment when abuse of women commanded national attention, a counter-movement quickly emerged asking whether #MeToo had gone "too far" (despite the relatively small number of abusers who experienced any sort of lasting consequences).

Sustained attention to abuse of women -- and the patriarchal norms and structures that underwrite it -- requires constant reminders of the way it shapes culture, politics and even language in the US. Yes, gaslighting is just one small word that has been stripped of its origins in domestic abuse. But it is a word that named a particular form of abuse, and gave women a way to talk about attacks on their credibility, that empowered them to claim their experience. That makes it a word whose origins deserve to be fully recognized. While gaslighting as a synonym for lying feels hackneyed in 2022, as a description of efforts to undermine women's credibility, it is as relevant as ever.