Etymology
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gaslight (n.)

also gas-light, "light, or a provision for light, produced by combustion of coal gas; a gas-jet," 1808, from (illuminating) gas (n.1) + light (n.). Used through the 19th and into the early 20th century as street and domestic lighting. Related: Gas-lighted; gas-lighting; gaslighting

As a verb meaning "to deliberately make a person believe that they are insane," by 1961, perhaps 1956. This sense is from the 1944 film Gaslight, in which a 19th century woman (played by Ingrid Bergman, who won an Academy Award) appears to be going mad. It is later revealed that her criminal husband has been convincing her that she is insane in order to discredit her observations of his activities. Among the observable clues has been the dimming of their home's gaslighting whenever (as she later learns) the husband goes secretly into the attic: he has convinced her that she is imagining this, until a family friend sees it, too, which confirms the clue that uncovers the crime.

Brian: Tell me. Is there anyone else in the house now, except us and Elizabeth?
Paula: No. Why?
Brian: The gas just went down.
Paula: You saw that too!
Brian: Why, yes.
Paula: Oh, then it really happens! I thought I imagined it!
Brian: But all it means is someone else has turned it on.
Paula: Oh, no, no. I thought that too. But every night, I’ve been all over the house, there’s never been another light turned on. At last I can tell this to someone! Every night when my husband goes out…
Brian: …The light goes down?
Paula: Yes.
Brian: And then what?
Paula: Well, then, I think I hear things. I watch and wait. Later on, the gas goes up again.
Brian: And he comes back?
Paula: Yes. Quite soon after. Always quite soon after.
[Gaslight, 1944]

The word seems to have received a boost in feminist literature in late 1970s.

… I had been told that my tonsillectomy was “not that bad” or that the dentist whose hands were between my legs was “fixing my teeth,” … My own favorite embodiment of this horror, still enjoyed by late-show insomniacs, is the 1944 film Gaslight, a tale which so impressed the public imagination that even today the word “gaslight” is used to describe an attempt to destroy another’s perceptions of reality and, ultimately, sanity itself. [Florence Rush, "The Best Kept Secret: Sexual Abuse of Children," 1980]

The sense evolved by 2016 to also mean "dismiss or discredit someone's viewpoint."

updated on December 07, 2022

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