Merriam-Webster declared “gaslighting” the word of the year, if you can believe it. The term, which describes a type of lie that leaves the target doubting their perception of reality, saw a 1,740 percent increase in searches on the dictionary’s site in 2022, with steady interest over the course of the year.
A husband tries to trick his wife into thinking she’s losing her mind — and thereby getting sent to an asylum — so he can steal the priceless jewels she’s inherited. His strategy involves sneaking around the house and making the gaslights flicker and dim, while insisting that the lights look totally normal to him.
The term has taken on a broader meaning in the age of social media, with climate advocates increasingly applying it to the deceptive actions of the oil industry. In the 1970s, for instance, Exxon’s own scientists warned executives that carbon emissions could lead to catastrophic warming — and then the oil giant proceeded to act as if climate change wasn’t real, sowing doubt about the science and working to block legislation to address rising emissions.
Gaslighting doesn’t just describe the oil industry’s communications, though — the literal “gas lights” that the word refers to began as a fossil-fueled phenomenon. Over the 18th and 19th centuries, a fuel called “coal gas” swept through Europe and the United States, lighting up city streets as well as homes, factories, and theaters through vast networks of pipes.
Gas lighting was known for making a mess. Factory owners didn’t know what to do with coal tar, the sticky, toxic byproduct of coal gas production. They tried dumping the byproduct into rivers, but it ended up killing fish. After Thomas Edison’s creation of the lightbulb in the 1880s, the technology gradually fell out of use in the 20th century, but gasworks plants left a legacy in the landscape. In Seattle, for example, the iconic Gas Works Park along Lake Union was once home to a major coal gasification plant that opened in 1906, filling the area with smelly, bubbling char for 50 years until it closed.