Adventures in Etymology – Ghost

In this adventure we’re uncovering the origins of the word ghost.


A ghost is:

  • The disembodied soul; the soul or spirit of a deceased person; a spirit appearing after death
  • Any faint shadowy semblance; an unsubstantial image.

It comes from Middle English gost (angel, devil, spirit, the Holy Ghost), from Old English gāst [ɡɑːst] (spirit, ghost, breath, demon), from Proto-West-Germanic *gaist (ghost, spirit), from Proto-Germanic *gaistaz (terror, fear, spirit, ghost, mind), from PIE *ǵʰéysd-os, from *ǵʰeysd- (anger, agitation) [source].

Words from the same roots include geisa (to rage, storm) in Icelandic, gast (ghost) in Swedish, geest (ghost spirit, mind) in Dutch and ghastly and poltergeist in English, [source].

Incidentally, the h in ghost mysteriously materialised, a bit like a ghost, in the Prologue to William Caxton’s Royal Book, printed in 1484, in a reference to the ‘Holy Ghoost’. It was probably his assistant, Wynkyn de Worde, who was responsible, and who was influenced by Flemish word gheest (ghost) [source].

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I also write about words, etymology and other language-related topics on the Omniglot Blog, and I explore etymological connections between Celtic languages on the Celtiadur.

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