Green-lit or greenlighted? Gaslighted or gaslit?

A RECENT ARTICLE in The Economist on Germany’s coalition talks was given the headline “Green-lit”. Elsewhere, though, we have reported that ventures were “greenlighted”. Another new verb is subject to the same confusion: to “gaslight”—to try to make someone think they are losing their mind and should not believe their own eyes—has two past-tense forms. A search of the web turns up hundreds of thousands of results for both “gaslighted” and “gaslit”.

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One reason verbs have two past-tense forms (or two past participles) is dialectal variation: in Britain words are “spelt”, in America they are “spelled”. Another is ordinary language change. Words have a tendency to become regular over time. “Help” once had the past tense “holp” and the past participle “holpen”, as in the prologue of “The Canterbury Tales”: “that hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke” (“that helped them when they were sick”). Now “help” is regular, though the Oxford English Dictionary says that “holpen” is “still employed by poets and archaists”.

In rarer cases, verbs become irregular over time. The most famous may be “snuck”, which was unknown before the 20th century. The past tense was “sneaked”. But some clearly felt that “sneaked” sounded wrong and adopted “snuck”. That was long disparaged until it suddenly began gaining respectability—data from Google Books show it rocketing in frequency in the 1980s and overtaking “sneaked” in about 2009.

Sticklers may stick with “sneaked”, but they are probably stuck with hearing “snuck”. “Pled”, too, has crept into the language as an alternative to “pleaded”. (“Pled” is probably modelled on “led”, the past tense of “lead”.) Here traditionalists have managed to keep “pleaded” as the most common form in writing, but “pled” is in circulation as well.

Rarely, a verb will have two past forms with different meanings. To “hang” has the past tense “hung” when it refers to a painting, and “hanged” when it involves an execution. This rule is subtle enough that many people do not know it, meaning both pictures and the condemned (though hopefully only in historical writing) may both one day be “hung”.

For one particularly common verb, American English has two past participles with distinct meanings. “I’ve got a car” means I own one; “I’ve gotten a car” means I have acquired one. (“Gotten” is the older form.) In yet another variation on the theme, two versions of a past participle can survive with different grammatical uses. “Thou hast cleft my heart in twain,” Gertrude tells Hamlet. Today she would say “You have cleaved my heart in two.” In its past-participle form, “cleft” is now primarily an adjective, as in “cleft palate”.

None of these, however, is a precedent for “gaslighting” versus “gaslit”. This is an unusual case in which speakers (usually unwittingly) have in mind two different ideas of the origin of a word. The “gaslit” crowd work on the premise that “to gaslight” comes from the verb “to light”. When you make a compound verb out of an irregular base verb, the compound inherits the irregularity: “override” becomes “overrode” just as “ride” becomes “rode”. Hence the instinct for “gaslight” to become “gaslit” in the way that “light” becomes “lit”. True compounds of the verb “to light” work this way: you can talk about a “floodlit” stage, because it is lit with floodlights.

But “gaslight” does not come from the verb “to light”, meaning “to illuminate”. It comes from the name of a play, “Gas Light”, which had its premiere in 1938, and its two film adaptations (both called “Gaslight”). According to an unwritten rule, when a new verb is coined from a noun, it is always regular. The name Google becomes the verb “to google”, which conjugates as “googled”, not “goggled” or something else exotic. The “gaslighted” lot have the (correct) intuition that “gaslight” is a verb of this type, not a compound of “to light”.

The same applies in the case of “to greenlight”. It does not mean to bathe in green light. It is a verb formed from the noun phrase “the green light”, a metaphorical approval given to something. Under the logic described above, “green-lit” should never have been greenlighted.

In language, norma loquendi—what is actually said or written—is the highest authority. Here, though, the greenlit-gaslit people are trying to follow the logic. In fact they are committing a kind of snuck-pled error, inventing an irregular form. Like “snuck” and “pled” these alternatives may live on, but they violate the rules rather than obeying them. And that is not Johnson gaslighting you.

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