Vernacular usage of abuse-related terms potentially harmful

By Erica Quinones

When turning to Twitter or TikTok, you’d be remiss to not encounter one of many psychological terms that have percolated into the popular vernacular.

“Love bombing” made a major appearance at the beginning of 2022 with the West Elm Caleb debacle, and “parasocial” seems to have seeped into our everyday conversations surrounding online presences.

However, while the use — or misuse — of medical or academic terminology is a perennial conversation (just look at Critical Race Theory controversy), there is something especially questionable about the vernacularization of language surrounding abuse.

One of the most popular terms to enter the cultural zeitgeist is “gaslighting.” Outside of its vernacular usage, the term originates from Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play, “Gas Light,” in which a husband attempts to manipulate his wife into believing she has gone mad.

Its psychological usage reflects this origin. First appearing in the 1980s, gaslighting refers to when one partner in an interpersonal relationship attempts to undermine the perceptions of the other to exert control over them, according to Robin Stern writing for Vox.

While gaslighting is most common in romantic relationships, according to Stern, it can occur in any interpersonal relationship that grows out of an unequal power dynamic and in which one partner fears confrontation due to the risk of losing the other person, such as a boss, a friend, or a parent.

Despite being a psychological term, vernacular usage of gaslighting has skyrocketed.

Being named one of the most popular words of 2018 by Oxford Dictionary and peaking in searches around August 2021, according to Google Trends, the term became a staple of social media language and is applied to everything from politics to reality television to interpersonal relationships.

Popular usage of the word is not inherently a problem. Increased awareness of abusive tactics makes individuals more aware of harmful behaviors in their own relationships. Having language to describe your experience can also validate the very perceptions being undermined while creating a community of survivors.

However, some commentators fear that gaslight’s prevalence in our vernacular transformed it into a buzzword, causing speakers to, as theatre producer Imy Wyatt Corner said to The Guardian, forget “the actual gravity of this type of abuse and the sensitivity the topic can require.”

When gaslight simply means lying and not the prolonged, systemic undermining of one’s subjectivity at the threat of loss, the experiences of victims are further belittled, invalidated, and brushed off. Getting gaslit becomes a personal failure of the victim and not a malicious act by the abuser.

But this type of vernacular take over occurs constantly. Words lose or change meaning based on daily usage, and when a hole in language arises, new phrases take their place. Fighting for the preservation of language is used far more often to hurt marginalized people than to protect their linguistic subjectivities.

However, outside of the perennial debate of language preservation, there is something more to be said about the context of gaslight’s transformation. It has not only been adopted as slang but as a meme.

Popularized by the alliterative “gaslight, gatekeep, girlboss,” the word has gained prevalence as a punchline.

This humorous connotation can undermine the severity of victims’ experiences, turning their traumas into jokes, often for people who have not lived through them. It carries the same weight as our Great “Gay” Debate of the 2010s, in which attention was drawn to the pejorative use of the word and how it transforms the identities of an already marginalized community into an insult. In a similar way, using gaslight as a joke in reference to lying or ridiculous claims may change its connotation as it refers to victims of gaslighting and not gaslighters themselves.

A great deal of weight is put on that “may,” because humor is especially slippery in who it targets.

Where “gay” as a pejorative term can only attack a marginalized community, gaslighting jokes can serve to call out and disempower abusers.

Returning to what Alex Abad-Santos dubbed the “‘live, laugh, love’ of toxic, usually white feminism” in Vox, “gaslight, gatekeep, girlboss” called out the hypocrisies of girlboss culture and its associated woman-led companies.

Identifying how some iconic girlboss businesses cultivated toxic, racist, and sometimes abusive work environments filled with a mixture of gaslighting and gatekeeping — hence the tagline — the phrase undermined a political paradigm which equated gender equality to capitalist power and likened a trickle-down-equality with group mobilization.

For all its simplicity, the three-word combo preserved the meaning of “gaslighting” and used it to attack abusers, not victims.

Maybe that is the key to using language: using it responsibly. Even when we use gaslight in its original form, it can be abused.

TikTok’s Couch Guy embodied the genuine harm that can be perpetuated by the irresponsible use of language when thousands of viewers accused him of gaslighting his girlfriend because he wasn’t excited enough during her visit.

As Couch Guy, aka Robert McCoy, wrote in his letter to Slate, he became “the subject of frame-by-frame body language analyses, armchair diagnoses of psychopathy, comparisons to convicted murderers, and general discussions about my ‘bad vibes,’” creating a situation where his humanity was forgotten and privacy invaded. All of which was justified by the accusations of his abuser status.

Language created to describe the experiences of victims and identify the actions of abusers was instead used to abuse and victimize a random man. Not necessarily because the accusers misunderstood “gaslighting,” but because they projected it onto a situation they did not have all the information about.

The popularization of language and even jokes utilizing the language of abuse is not inherently bad. Its spread may allow victims to recognize the presence of abusive behaviors in their own relationships and create community around that shared experience. The perpetuation of community can often lead to humor which targets abusers and empowers their victims. It is vital to note, however, who is making those jokes, who those jokes target, and the power that exists in the masses which popularize vernacular.

The language of abuse does not lose its power nor its meaning when it is popularized. Rather, it gains additional strength to empower or victimize those it was made to validate.

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