October 28, 2016

Words of the Month - Ghosts

        English is known for its richness of synonyms, and words for supernatural spirits are no exception.  You’d think communication would be served by one or two words for ghosts, but no, English feels the need for dozens.  In honor of Hallowe’en, therefore, here are a few of them, with some of the etymological stories behind them.

ghost - From Old English, before we gained all those other synonyms, this could mean all kinds of spirits, angels, demons, soul, breath…  It was the word available in Old English to translate the Latin Bible’s Holy Spirit, which is why we hear of the Holy Ghost, thus confusing generations of Christian children.  It remains, however, our most basic word for the spirits of the dead that may remain to haunt the world of the living.

specter (or British spectre) - This one is from French (c. 1600) from Latin spectrum meaning “appearance.”  That idea of “appearance” seems to be a common way to name the spirits of the dead.  Compare…

phantom - Ultimately from the Greek root phantazein “to make visible,” it reached English around 1300 by way of French, by way of Latin.  However, it meant “illusion” first and didn’t come to be applied to ghosts until the end of the century.

apparition - Ultimately from Latin apparitionem “appearance,” in English this was first used for Epiphany: the appearance of the Christ Child to the Wise Men.  A century later, about 1600, it had begun to mean “ghost” from that same sense of a startling supernatural appearance.

eidolon - Another “appearance,” borrowed from Greek in 1801, in English this meant “ghost” first, and later came to gain the meaning “an ideal image,” which is quite an upgrade.

revenant - Borrowed from French in 1814, this is literally “one who returns,” another nice metaphor for the unquiet spirit.  As such, it’s getting at the same idea as…

haunt - As a synonym of ghost, this dates to mid nineteenth century African-American vernacular, but the original meaning of the verb was “to frequent, to visit,” so a haunt is a spirit that hangs around in a particular place.

shade - It’s easy to see how a dark or shadowy thing could come to be a metaphor for a ghost.  English made this leap in the 1610s.

spirit - Not all spirits are of dead people.  As the “soul” or “essential principle,” a spirit refers to a ghost only when it refers to the essence of a person that should have moved on at death.  Its ultimate root is Latin for “breath,” but had become an English “ghost” by the late fourteenth century.

wraith - Borrowed from Scottish in the 1510s.

spook - Borrowed from Dutch in 1801.

poltergeist - Borrowed from German in 1838, featured previously here.

dybbuk - Borrowed from Hebrew in 1903, featured previously here.

Manes - deified or venerated spirits of the dead, Roman.

Lemures - evil spirits of unburied dead, Roman, featured previously here.

White Lady - Probably the most famous particular kind of ghost, dressed all in white and often the spirit of a woman who was betrayed by a lover.  Legends of White Ladies date back at least to the medieval era, but many of the more recent White Ladies seem to have been killed in car crashes.

        Why so many?  Apparently spirits of the dead are a major preoccupation about which people have spent a lot of time talking over the centuries.  So you see that no matter what sort of hauntings you may encounter this Hallowe’en, the English language leaves you amply equipped to discuss them.

[Pictures: Athenodorus Confronts the Spectre, illustration by Henry Justice Ford, c. 1900;
The Ghost of the Murdered Wife Oiwa, polychrome woodblock print by Utagawa Toyokuni, 1812 (Image from The Met);
Dante and Virgil before Farinata, wood engraving by Gustave Doré from Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, 1861 (Image from Open Culture).]

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