When I first entered the online conversation about narcissistic personality disorder, I discovered that a number of slang terms were being used to describe narcissistic behaviors that I had never encountered in academic writing.
Eventually, I deciphered their meanings.
Some of these terms are actually quite clever and capture important aspects of the experience of loving someone with narcissistic personality disorder—such as gaslighting, hoovering, and flying monkeys. However, many of these terms are being misused in much the same way that uninformed people casually label people as narcissists without any real understanding of what mental health professionals mean by that diagnosis.
So, in the interests of clarity, I have started to assemble a glossary in which I define the most frequently encountered narcissistic slang terms in ways that are consistent with both my professional knowledge of narcissistic personality disorder and also with how these terms are currently being used in blogs and online articles by non-mental health professionals. I also try, where possible, to provide the source for these terms because knowing the original context often clarifies the meaning.
Note: In this article, I am using the terms “narcissist” and “narcissistic” as shorthand ways to describe someone who qualifies for a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder.
Source: This term comes from a 1938 play called “Gaslight” and the two later 1940’s movie remakes of the play. The play and the movies are set during the late 19th century when gas lights were used for indoor lighting. The basic plot concerns a husband Gregory who is trying to convince his new wife Paula that she is going insane so he can have her committed and get her power of attorney. Unbeknownst to Paula, Gregory is also covertly searching their house for the valuable jewels that he believes are hidden there.
Gregory is a master manipulator and he heartlessly does whatever he can to make Paula doubt herself. He searches the attic causing the gas lights in the rest of the house to dim, but when Paula comments on the dimming lights, Gregory denies that it is happening and tells her that she is imagining things. He takes things, like Paula’s brooch, and then tries to convince Paula that she is losing things and that her memory is not to be trusted. Similarly, when she says that she has heard footsteps the attic, instead of Gregory admitting that he has been up there, he claims that these, like the gaslights and the missing brooch, are all figments of Paula’s disordered imagination and proof that she is going crazy.
Modern Meaning: Narcissistic gaslighting occurs when people with narcissistic personality disorder refuse to admit that they are wrong or have done something bad to their mate. Even when they are caught in the act, they will often try to convince the other person that he or she is paranoid and is imagining the whole thing.
Source: This term comes from the children’s book The Wizard of Oz by Frank Baum and the very popular 1939 movie based on it. The movie starred Judy Garland as Dorothy, the young heroine of the story. Dorothy and her little dog Toto are swept up by a tornado in Kansas and end up in the magical land of Oz. Dorothy’s house lands on the Wicked Witch of the East killing her. Her sister, the Wicked Witch of the West, blames Dorothy for her sister’s death and seeks revenge. The Wicked Witch has a very scary troop of flying monkeys who do her bidding. She sends them after Dorothy.
Modern Meaning: Flying monkeys are the slang term for any group of people that the narcissist enlists as allies to persecute someone that the narcissist hates. To gain their support, the narcissist makes up lies that portray the other person as evil and the narcissist as the real victim.
Going “Gray Rock”
Source: The term gray rock appears to have been first used by a blogger Skyler in her article “The Gray Rock Method of Dealing with Psychopaths.” Unfortunately, Skyler misuses the term psychopath to describe anyone that she sees as dramatic, unpleasant, attention-seeking, and malevolent. She includes narcissists in this group.
Modern Meaning: If you are involved with a narcissist whom you cannot avoid, many people advise going gray rock. This means that your manner during your interactions with the narcissist is as boring, unemotional, and neutral as you can manage. Essentially, you become as uninteresting as a gray rock.
Source: According to Wikipedia.org, the term love bombing was coined by members of Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church of the United States in the 1970s. New members of the group were showered with displays of warmth and attention. The church members say that love bombing was intended to be an expression of genuine friendship and concern. Critics of the practice saw it as a form of psychological manipulation used by cults in order to solidify the new member’s devotion to the group.
Modern Meaning: The term love bombing is now used to describe narcissists’ over-the-top courtship tactics when they are chasing someone that they are trying to seduce or make fall in love with them. It is wildly romantic behavior that includes constant praise, promises of undying love, thoughtful little gifts, late-night texts, and anything and everything that the narcissist thinks will secure the love of the person he or she has chosen. This intense positive attention is often accompanied by pressure for a quick commitment. Unfortunately, once the narcissist actually secures the person’s love, the love-bombing generally stops and is eventually replaced by devaluation or indifference.
Source: The term hoovering is derived from the name of the Hoover vacuum cleaner. In Ireland and the UK, “to hoover” became synonymous with using a vacuum cleaner to suck up dirt.
Modern Meaning: The term hoovering has now been extended to refer to a narcissist’s attempts to suck a discarded mate back into a relationship by saying and doing things that the ex would find irresistible.
Source: According to Wikipedia.org, the term narcissistic supply is a concept that was introduced in 1938 by the psychoanalyst Otto Fenichel to describe the various ways that we use other people to prop up our self-esteem.
Modern Meaning: The term narcissistic supplies, or supply for short, describes anything and anyone that narcissists use to regulate their self-esteem. The purpose of narcissistic supplies is to enhance the narcissist’s sense of being special.
Narcissistic Word Salad
Source: The term word salad or its more formal name schizophasia refers to a form of disorganized and unintelligible speech that is characteristic of some forms of severe mental illness. Seemingly random phrases or words are linked together. The term word salad is often associated with the psychotic disorder called schizophrenia.
Modern Meaning: The term narcissistic word salad is essentially a misuse of an important psychological term. Instead of referring to an involuntary verbal sign of a severe mental illness, such as schizophrenia, it is being used as a slang term for a type of narcissistic speech that is purposefully confusing. Listeners find narcissistic word salad extremely frustrating because the narcissist is using circular reasoning, outright lies, denial, or mischaracterizations of past events to avoid being wrong or having to take responsibility for something.
The Narcissistic Family System—
The Golden Child & The Scapegoat
In families led by a powerful parent with a narcissistic personality disorder, the children in the family are sometimes assigned specific roles and are treated quite differently from each other.
This is because people with narcissistic personality disorder lack whole object relations and cannot see their children realistically as having a blend of both good and bad traits.
One child may become the recipient of the narcissistic parent’s all-good projections and is seen as perfect, while one or more of the other children may be seen as all-bad.
In some families, these roles are reassigned according to whomever is the parent’s favorite that day. This sometimes fosters competition among the children to please the parent and be seen as the good one.
The Golden Child: This is the term for the narcissistic parent’s favorite child. This child is idealized as perfect and special. The parent projects all the positive qualities of this golden child and brags about his or her wonderful accomplishments to anyone who will listen.
The Scapegoat: This child is the object of all the narcissistic parent’s negative projections. He or she is devalued and treated as an insignificant loser who is blamed for everything that goes wrong, including things that are clearly other people’s fault.