By Mark Sundaram
Welcome to the Endless Knot! Today, to celebrate Halloween, we’ll be following the spooky trail from words for ghosts to ghost words!
England has a reputation as a particularly haunted place, as Owen Davies points out in his book The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts. The English language does have quite a few words for ghost, and looking at the history of these words can tell us something about the history of belief in the ghostly and supernatural in England.
The word ghost is probably the prototypical term for the concept in English,and ultimately comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *gheis- used to refer to the emotions of fear or amazement. So literally a ghost is just a scary thing, and not necessarily the disembodied spirit of a dead person. That original sense is echoed in the Old English verb gæstan meaning “to frighten” and in the Modern English word aghast. However, the Old English noun gast, from which we get ghost, was most commonly used to refer simply to the soul or spirit, in Christian contexts, and not necessarily to a frightening thing. This is connected to the religious distinction between the soul and the body — think of the expression “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak”. This soul-body division might lie behind the headless ghost trope, except in cases where the deceased was actually beheaded, which was in fact a very uncommon form of execution in England, despite what you might have seen in medieval movies. And it’s interesting to note that although the headless ghost is a common trope in literature, it’s not so common in real-life reports of ghost sightings.
There are of course a few cognates in English related to the word ghost, perhaps most amusingly the Americanisms snallygaster, a kind of mythical monster supposedly found in Maryland that was said to prey on poultry and small children, and snollygoster which means “a shrewd person devoid of principles, especially a politician”. Both words come from German schnell “quick” plus Geist “spirit”, perhaps through Pennsylvania Dutch, actually a dialect of German. Of course that word Geist also forms part of poltergeist, which literally means “noisy ghost”. The polter- part comes from German poltern meaning “to make a noise, rattle or rumble”, and comes ultimately from a Proto-Indo-European root which means “to cry out, yell”, which also gives us such words as bellow, bawl, and belch.
Poltergeist was first used in print by Martin Luther, the instigator of the Protestant Reformation, but it didn’t make it into English until author Catherine Crowe used it in her 1848 collection of ghost stories The Night-Side of Nature, referring specifically to the poltergeists of the Germans. Crowe herself it seems later had a run-in with the spiritual realm when one night in February 1854 she was found naked in Edinburgh, convinced that spirits had turned her invisible. The word poltergeist only became popular in the 20th century when used by psychic investigator and debunker Harry Price. Harry Price, a friend of fellow debunker and magician Harry Houdini, was a target for the ire of noted spiritualist and writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, inventor of Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle at one point threatened Price that if he didn’t give up his attacks on spiritualism he would meet the same fate as Houdini.
It’s interesting that the noisy poltergeist should make its way into English spiritualist culture in the the 19th and 20th centuries, since over that time reports of ghosts speaking became more and more rare, after having been not uncommon in the early modern period. Conveying information was of course one of the purported reasons for ghostly appearances. In an 1829 case heard by the Leicester magistrates, a Mrs Bridgart brought charges against her serving girl. When questioned, the girl reported that she had seen a ghost sent by God to admonish the “wicked” boys of the household who were “all liars”. The serving girl was let off with a warning. Ghosts could even appear to correct legal injustices, as in the 17th century case of Sir Walter Long, whose second wife tried to have her stepson disinherited, but the ghostly hand of the first wife appeared between the parchment and the candle impeding the clerk from drawing up the legal documentation.
In Latin, spirits of the dead were referred to by such words as umbrae, manes, lemures, and larvae, and these words make it into English, at least in a limited way, particularly when referring to or translating classical Latin texts. Umbrae was literally translated into English as “shades”, a word that comes into English through the Germanic route and is related to shadow. The Greco-Roman underworld was said to be filled with dim shades of the dead, who could sometimes return, as seen for instance in some famous scenes in Homer’s Odyssey. But more common in English is spirit, which comes from Latin spiritus, literally meaning breath (think respiration). It comes ultimately from a Proto-Indo-European root that means “to blow”, which comes down through the Germanic branch as Old Norse fisa meaning “to fart”, which then makes it into English as fizzle. So if the belching poltergeist wasn’t enough for you, here’s a farting spirit!
Some of these Latin words make it into the 1597 book Dæmonologie by King James I — yes King James wrote a book about supernatural threats — such as lemures and umbrae mortuorum (literally shades of the dead). King James also defined the term wraiths as spirits that “appeare in the shadow of a person newly dead, or to die, to his friendes”. So a wraith by his definition anyway was the spirit of a person either on the point of death or having just died, not returning later. We don’t really know where the word wraith comes from, though it first appears in Scottish English, possibly from Old Norse vorðr meaning “guardian”, or perhaps connected to wrath implying a vengeful spirit. JRR Tolkien suggested a connection to writhe, perhaps appropriate to his use of the word in The Lord of the Rings. Another more recent mystery ghost word is spook. First appearing in English in 1801, it seems to come from Dutch from some unknown Germanic source. Spooky!
Moving on to places ghosts are found, it turns out that haunted house is etymologically redundant. Haunt comes into English most directly from Old French hanter meaning “to frequent, haunt”, ultimately from a Proto-Indo-European root that means “to settle, dwell, be home”. This root gives us English home, but it also gives us, through Old French, the diminutive form hamlet “a little village”, and in the context of ghosts that inevitably reminds us of the famous ghost in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (though that name is not etymologically related, but more on that in a minute). There is, of course, a long history of ghosts on stage, reaching right back to the ancient world. The Greek playwright Aeschylus was the first to use ghosts as vengeful characters who intervened in the plot, and Euripides used a ghost in a scene-setting prologue to introduce the play. Such techniques in Greek playwrights were picked up by the Roman Seneca, who was a major influence on Elizabethan drama in the time of Shakespeare. The ghost of Hamlet’s father is perhaps the most famous literary ghost of all time, and he is an example of the ghost of the murdered come back to reveal his killer. Though this may seem more the stuff of a sensational literary trope, early modern authorities did indeed take such claims seriously. Murder investigations have been launched on the evidence of ghost sightings as in the 1660 Westmorland case of the ghost of Robert Parkin appearing before one Robert Hope crying out “I am murdered I am murdered I am murdered.” And in 1728 the body of a boy of Beauminster, Dorset, was exhumed on the evidence of sightings of the boy’s ghost. It is in this very world that Hamlet can be driven to revenge against his uncle on the say so of his father’s ghost.
And indeed it’s striking that such beliefs held on in the Protestant era. Before Martin Luther and his fellow reformers, the Roman church’s doctrine of Purgatory could easily allow for the idea that the ghosts of those not yet admitted to heaven on account of their sins, or the spirits of the righteous come to admonish the sinful, could well return to the mortal realm, but it seems somewhat surprising in Protestant England, in which Reformation theologians rejected Catholic notions of Purgatory as mere superstition. And this brings us back to Hamlet, who is himself not sure of the reality of the ghost, but it leads him nonetheless to start thinking about the nature of life and death.
Speaking of Hamlet, the legendary story is recounted in a number of different versions, most importantly in the Danish writer Saxo Grammaticus’s Gesta Danorum or Deeds of the Danes, in which the name Hamlet appears as Amleth (or actually Amlethus in the Latin). . So as I mentioned before this name is not related to the word hamlet meaning “little village”. The traditional interpretation of the name, based on the elements of the Old Norse form Amlóði, is that it is composed of ama “to vex, annoy” and óðr “mad, frantic”, and this obviously reflects the character of Hamlet feigning madness in order to avenge the death of his father who was killed by his uncle who married his widowed mother. That second element óðr meaning “mad, frantic” is the name of one of the gods in Norse mythology, the husband of Freyja, and the word also seems to be the source of the name of the god Odin. And not only does it have the meaning of madness and frenzy, but also poetry and inspiration—which, as that ‘spirit’ root suggests, can even imply possession. What’s more, Odin is a god of the dead, what’s technically called a psychopomp, from the Greek word for spirit, psuche, leading the souls of the dead to the afterlife. Specifically Odin plays host to dead warriors in Valhalla. And Odin is associated with the Wild Hunt, the ghostly procession of hunters in wild pursuit through the sky, thought to presage great calamity.
Now getting back to Shakespeare, his other famous ghost is that of Banquo in Macbeth. In that story, the ghost returns not to reveal his killer, Macbeth, but instead to haunt him. Like Hamlet, the play Macbeth casts a long shadow over the history of English literature. After Shakespeare, perhaps Britain’s second most important playwright is George Bernard Shaw, who himself wrote a Macbeth Skit, a short comic sketch about the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Though Shaw did not contribute to the canon of stage ghosts, he did work for a while as a ghost writer, for a music criticism column in the satirical publication called The Hornet.
Of course Shaw’s most famous play is Pygmalion (adapted into a musical as My Fair Lady), in which a pretentious linguist named Henry Higgins tries to turn an ordinary cockney flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, into a true lady by giving her elocution lessons. Though Shaw denied it was a truly biographical sketch of anyone, he did admit that the character of Henry Higgins was based largely on real life linguists Alexander Melville Bell and Henry Sweet. Bell was an expert in phonetics, elocution, and “proper” speech, much like Henry Higgins, and invented Visible Speech, a system of phonetic symbols for writing down speech sounds, which was useful not only for teaching proper elocution but also for teaching the deaf to speak. Bell was the father of Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, which I suppose now gives us the opportunity to “ghost” friends and lovers we wish to dispense with by not answering it. As for Henry Sweet, he was indeed also a gifted linguist, publishing widely on phonetics and spoken language and writing the first description of the educated London dialect now known as Received Pronunciation. Nevertheless, he neglected his studies (in German) at Oxford University, instead pursuing his own research, which often focused on medieval Germanic languages like Old English and Old Norse. He produced a number of very important works in those fields, including editions of medieval texts, textbooks, and a dictionary of Old English. He was also a very ornery man who made enemies due to his abrupt and confrontational nature. You can see the outlines of Henry Higgins’s character there. In particular, he was very bothered by the fact that he never received a university professorship that he though he deserved, and he was also troubled by the numerous state-funded, tenured German scholars who were publishing widely on the subject of medieval English, which he thought ought properly to be the national heritage of England and off-limits to the Germans. He was joined in this view by fellow medieval scholar and contemporary Walter William Skeat. Skeat also published widely on Old and Middle English literature, as well as writing an etymological dictionary still consulted today. One of the important editions of Old English Skeat published was of the Lives of the Saints by the Anglo-Saxon homilist named Ælfric, which includes the sermon called De Auguriis or On Auguries. Basically it’s a sermon against using magical practises for predicting the future. But because the manuscripts he based his text on were not completely comprehensive, he left out of his edition a biblical story from the First Book of Samuel that was present in only two manuscripts, known as the Witch of Endor. No not that Endor. To summarize, King Saul of the Israelites, worried about his impending battle against the Philistines, consults a necromancer known as the Witch of Endor. She calls up the ghost of the prophet Samuel who foretells Saul’s defeat and death in battle. This story was a particularly contentious one in terms of its religious interpretation — whether or not it’s possible, and allowable, to magically conjure up the spirits of the dead — and has had a variety of treatments. In art from the middle ages onward, Samuel is sometimes depicted as wearing his burial shroud. And this image, not necessarily of Samuel in particular but of ghosts in general appearing in their death shroud, is what lies behind our stereotypical image of the ghost looking like a person in a white bedsheet. Indeed it was generally the custom in Europe, especially for the poorer classes, to use the sheet from the deathbed as a burial shroud. Coffins were mainly only used by the wealthy and aristocratic until the 19th century. In 1666 a law was passed in England requiring that instead of the traditional linen, shrouds had to be made of wool in order to boost the local textile industry. And because of the many sightings involving white-sheeted ghosts (and presumably the many hoaxers who donned a white sheet to get the appropriately ghostly effect), it became potentially hazardous to appear at night in white clothing. In one instance in 1851 in Manchester, a thief named James Devine wrapped the white calico cloth that he had just stolen around himself and was confronted as a ghost, then apprehended and prosecuted. In a rather more unfortunate instance in Hammersmith in 1804 a bricklayer named Thomas Milward was taken to be a ghost on several occasions on account of his white working clothes and was eventually shot to death by an Excise Officer named Francis Smith, who did indeed take him for a ghost. But in any case all this accounts for the standard Halloween costume of putting a sheet over your head to dress as a ghost. Just make sure no one thinks you’re the real thing!
But getting back to our philological friend Walter Skeat, he is also notable, and particularly relevant to our purposes, for coining the term ghost word. A ghost word is a fake word that appears in dictionaries, usually as the result of an editorial error. One famous example of a ghost word was dord, which appeared in Webster’s New International Dictionary from 1934 to 1947. It was originally intended as a chemistry abbreviation for density, D or d, but was accidentally taken as the word dord.
And speaking of fake language, in addition to ghost words we also have zombie rules. These so-called rules were never really descriptions of how grammar actually worked but were nonetheless insisted on by prescriptivist grammarians, often from the 18th century, trying to make English syntax conform more to Latin syntax. Well-known examples are “don’t split the infinitive”, as in the famous Star Trek line “to boldly go”, and “don’t end a sentence in a preposition”, as lampooned in the quote attributed to Churchill, “arrant nonsense up with which I will not put”. They’re called zombie rules because although they’re dead, they seem to keep coming back to haunt us, in spite of linguists’ best efforts to kill them. Interesting that the undead reference here is to zombies, since they weren’t originally undead. The word zombie comes from a West African word akin to Kimbundu znambi and Kongo zumbi andmeaning “god” or “fetish”, originally referring to a snake god. The word may also have been influenced by a Louisiana creole word from Spanish sombra “shade, shadow, ghost” from Latin sub- “under” plus the umbra “shade, shadow” that we saw before. The word made it into English in the 19th century, and it was really only in Haitian folklore, sometimes associated with voodoo magic, that the zombie became the reanimated corpse that we know today, and then was further transformed by zombie films, particularly George A. Romero’s 1968Night of the Living Dead, from which we get the undead mindlessly attacking humans in order to eat their flesh or brains.
Getting back to ghost words, not only can we find fictitious entries in dictionaries but in other types of reference works such as encyclopedias and atlases. A fictitious entry in an encyclopedia is often put there not by accident but as a copyright trap to prove other encyclopedias were plagiarizing the entries. In maps and atlases false entries take the form of trap streets and paper towns, the latter famously providing the set up for the John Green novel of the same name, which includes the fictitious hamlet Agloe NY. Similar map terms include phantom settlements or phantom islands, and this brings us to our last batch of words for ghosts, words whose etymologies all have to do with seeing or appearance. Phantom and the related phantasm come from Greek phantázein, which can be traced back to a Proto-Indo-European root that means “to shine”. Similarly from Latin we get spectre from spectrum ultimately from the root *spek- “to observe”. And the word apparition comes from Latin pareo “to appear, obey”. So phantoms, spectres, and apparitions are all ghosts that appear to us, as opposed to ghosts that remain invisible and only make sounds or knock things over.
And as a final example of a ghost word, involving phantom: an entry for the word phantomnation was picked up by several dictionaries as an erroneous reading of two separate words phantom and nation in a passage about the underworld from Alexander Pope’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey “The Phantome-nations of the dead”. Bringing us to the end of our own long journey from words for ghosts to ghost words!
Thanks for watching! And for a spookily good time do check out the playlist of other Halloween videos made by YouTubers in the WeCreateEDU group. If you’ve enjoyed these etymological explorations and cultural connections, please subscribe to this channel or share it. And check out our Patreon, where you can make a contribution to help me make more videos. I’m @Alliterative on Twitter, and you can read more of my thoughts on my blog at alliterative.net