Though these days the term wordmonger refers to "a writer or speaker who uses language pretentiously or carelessly," please join me in proposing a new meaning. A fishmonger appreciates and promotes fish, therefore, a wordmonger does the same for words.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Ghostly Etymologies

Ghostly Etymologies

It seems the right season to consider some ghostly etymologies.

Ghost was spelled gast in Old English, and meant soul, spirit, life, breath, angel or demon (yes, both good & bad spirits). It made it to English through various Germanic languages, all beginning with the Proto-Indo-European root gheis-, to be excited, amazed or frightened.

Spook showed up in the language in 1801 from the Dutch word, spooc, meaning spook or ghost. Its sister words include: from Danish, spØg, meaning joke, from German, spuk, meaning ghost or apparition, from Swedish spoc, meaning scarecrow. It may have relatives in Lithuanian, Lettish, & Prussian, where the root words in question meant respectively to shine, dragon or witch, & spark. Spook didn’t move into the world of verbs (meaning to unnerve) until1935.

Spirit showed up in English in the 1200s, meaning animating principle in man & animals. It came from the Latin word spiritus, meaning soul, courage, vigor, or breath, from the verb spirare, which meant to breathe, to blow, or to play the flute. By the 1300s, spirit also referred to supernatural beings, by 1610 it picked up the meaning volatile substance, by the 1670s it began to mean strong alcoholic liquor, & by the 1690s spirit also meant the essential principle of something.

The Scots gave us the word wraith. Its roots may be in the Old Norse word vorðr, meaning guardian, or the Gaelic word arrach, meaning apparition or spirit. Even as I type, intrepid & dedicated etymologists are duking it out over wraith’s true origin.

Good followers, what have you to say about flute-playing spirits, angelic ghosts, Scottish wraiths, or other topics in this ghostly vein?

My thanks go out to this week’s sources,, The OED & Wordnik.


  1. Interesting that breath is so much a part of these definitions. An unexpected breath on ones neck is a pretty spooky thing. Raspy breathing, breathing heard in the dark. All these things make the hair rise. I think sounds are scarier than sights any day.

  2. Hi Christine,
    Breathing is a fascinating study. The word INSPIRATION, for instance, & I love the flute-playing connection. Wouldn't you think our scarier words would be associated with some instrument like the bagpipes or the accordion instead of something light & airy like the flute?