Passing game – Frank McNally on ‘gaslighting’ as word of the year and why some old footballers never die

In 2022, it seems, everyone is being gaslit

The new-found popularity of “passing” as a euphemism for death is bad enough in itself, God knows. But I have read several examples in the past year that also highlighted the word’s fundamental unsuitability for the task.

In each case, the context was the demise of a former football star. And although names and codes differed, the phrase used did not. Invariably, the lamenters agreed that they were “deeply saddened by the passing of” the player in question.

Now I think I can speak for sports fans everywhere when I say that we have all been deeply saddened on occasion by the passing of players, even – indeed especially – while the players are still alive.

Many of us mourn goals that might have been scored 10 or 20 or 40 years ago, but weren’t, leaving us ever since to regret the passing of our star midfielder, which let us down so cruelly at a key moment.


Then there is some players’ refusal to pass, which is if anything is even worse. We have all been on teams where certain people would never part with the ball, even when we were in much better position to score than they were.

This is not just an amateur phenomenon. I can think of at least one famous former rugby full-back for whom retaining possession in every overlap situation seemed to be a tactic: maybe even orders from the coach.

Thankfully, that player is still a long way from passing in the eternal sense, either. But if his career was anything to go by, he must have a good chance of immortality.

I accept that, more than most subjects, death does tend to invite euphemism. In this context, however, “passing” gives rise to unnecessary confusion.

When making formal announcements, it is surely better to say that a famous former player “died”. In sympathising with the family, we can then use such gentle expressions as “he’s gone to a better place” (while perhaps silently lamenting that many of his passes did not go to a better place too).


In a separate development, meanwhile, the US dictionary Merriam-Webster has named “gaslighting” as its word of the year for 2022, based on the number of people looking the definition up online.

Searches rose 1,740 per cent on 2021, reflecting not just the word’s popularity, but also widespread confusion about what it means, a confusion that seems to extend to many who use it in print.

The term’s latter-day meaning arises from the 1944 film Gaslight, in which a manipulative husband (played by Charles Boyer) tries to convince his wife (Ingrid Bergman) that she’s mad, as part of a plot to seize her jewels.

A periodical dimming of the houselights, caused by his nefarious activities in the attic, is central to the plot, hence the title.

In the now popular sense, gaslighting is any form of manipulation, with or without the involvement of jewels, intended to make its targets doubt their sanity. And as recently as 2016, the American Dialect Society declared this a “new word”, the most useful one in the year Donald Trump became president.

But I see that all of half a century ago, according to our archive, The Irish Times ran a news story featuring the term and concept. It was written by the then medical correspondent, David Nowlan, and based on research at St Patrick’s Hospital in Dublin, first reported in the British Journal of Psychiatry.

“Madness as a means of ending marriage” read the headline over a story about two married women, aged 72 and 29. Both had been subjected to psychiatric assessment based on allegations by gaslighting husbands (“the neighbours all call her mad Mary” claimed one). Both were found to be in full possession of their wits.

Not that the phenomenon was confined to Ireland or indeed to abusive husbands. The same story mentioned a 1969 study in Britain, reported in the Lancet, where targets included a publican whose wife was scheming to have him committed so she could take over the bar.

Of the Irish cases, meanwhile, researchers guessed they were part of a much wider problem. “Almost certainly the gaslight phenomenon goes unrecognised more often than not,” they concluded.

But 50 years later, that has all changed. In 2022, it seems, everyone is being gaslit: by family members, colleagues, even the government. No doubt some of the self-diagnosis is exaggerated. Even so, I suppose this much-heightened awareness of a once little understood psychiatric phenomenon must be counted as progress.