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TWTS: New verbs beget old questions about tense

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“Gaslighting” isn’t a new concept. However, the verb “gaslight” has seen a surge in popularity in recent years.

That’s left some people wondering about the verb’s past tense. Our listener Keith Gatling says, “My daughter asked me why we say 'gaslighted' instead of 'gaslit' but wasn’t satisfied with my answer.”

This question is very similar to one we received several weeks ago about the past tense of “snowblow.” As we explained, and as Keith explained to his daughter, when new verbs such as "snowblow" and “gaslight” pop up, we tend to stick to a pattern.

Let’s back up about 80 years. The verb “gaslight” comes from the 1944 film Gaslight, which was based on a play performed in 1938. Merriam-Webster dictionaries defines it as:

“To psychologically manipulate a person, usually over an extended period of time, so that the victim questions their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories and experiences confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, and doubts concerning their emotional or mental stability.”

The Oxford English Dictionary dates the first print use to 1961, though oral usage clearly predates that. Examples can be found throughout the decades since then, but “gaslight” started to surge in popularity in the mid-2010s, particularly in the political area.

Since then, “gaslight” has only increased in frequency. In 2016 the American Dialect Society recognized it as the most useful word of the year. In 2018, it made Oxford Languages’ shortlist for word of the year.

When it comes to past tense, dictionaries will list both “gaslighted” and “gaslit.” However, if you look at usage in Google Books, you’ll find that “gaslighted” is the more common past tense and past participle.

As our listener Keith explained to his daughter, because “gaslight” was a noun that later became a verb, it follows the pattern of becoming a regular verb with an “ed” ending, just as “snowblow” did with “snowblowed.”

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Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of Weekend Edition at Michigan Radio. She also co-hosts Michigan Radio’s weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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