Caught in the gaslights

The first three English words I learned when I arrived to the U.S. in 1962 came courtesy of the New York City subway and were, if I recall correctly, “No spitting, loitering or eating.” I jotted the words and looked them up when I got home, a habit I maintain today.

English has to be the most generous of all languages because new words come flying over the transom practically every day, few questions asked. A week ago I was informed by the people at Merriam-Webster of a word I’d never heard of—shunpike. It’s a route one takes to avoid a turnpike. Silly but true.

Merriam-Webster, which updates its dictionary periodically, may be the closest thing we have to an English language police except perhaps for style books used by editors.

But Merriam-Webster is nothing like the Académie Française or the Real Academia Española which attempt to keep their respective languages from being contaminated by anglicisms or barbarisms.

It’s a hopeless battle when it comes to computerese. In Spain some purists insist on ordenadoras, but most of the Spanish-speaking world goes with computadoras. As for feedback, some enterprising Spanish linguist proposed retroalimentación, a mouthful of syllables, for feedback. It gets worse when English terms are transliterated on the fly, and to hack becomes hackear. ¡Uao! ¡Qué horror!

No such compunctions exist in American English, which has an endlessly open mind to neologisms wherever they are found, back in the patio, up in the mezzanine, or under the pergola. But even Merriam-Webster has limits: There is no “No problema.  

Recently I ran across “to gaslight,” a verb that apparently has been around for awhile though I’d never heard it. Merriam-Webster only recognizes it as a noun, “a gas lighting fixture,” but not as a verb.

“Damn, that dishonest media is at it again!”

These days it’s frequently used to refer to the torrent of facts, factoids, hyperboles and outright lies that pour out of the White House with the intention of obfuscating the public, compounded by hysterical reactions from the lefties.

Go back and forth between Fox News and MSNBC and by the end of the evening you will have gaslit yourself into a migraine. Or is it “gaslighted”? We’ll have to wait for Merriam-Webster to come up with the proper conjugation.

To explore its origin, a few weeks ago Stew and I rented “Gaslight,” a 1944 film (“La luz que agoniza,” in Spanish) starring Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotten and an eighteen-year-old Angela Lansbury playing a mouthy maid in a debut performance that got her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

As the story goes, the husband, played by Boyer, feeds his wife, played by Bergman, false and confusing information, including turning the gas down periodically to make the gaslights flicker. Soon Bergman starts believing she is losing her marbles, pretty much like some American voters may feel nowadays.

Gaslight the movie has a happy conclusion I will not reveal, except that applied to today’s political situation in the U.S., it’s an ending some Republicans may not welcome.


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