Nowadays, the word ghost typically refers to ‘An apparition of a dead person which is believed to appear or become manifest to the living, typically as a nebulous image’.1 However, this hasn’t always been the case.

A long time ago, the words spirit and ghost meant the same thing. The main difference between them was the language they had originally come from: spirit came from Latin and ghost from Germanic, via Old English. Ghost meant ‘spirit, soul’ and spirit meant ‘breath, spirit [unsurprisingly!]’.2

The words Spirit and Ghost are used interchangeably in the Authorized Version [of the Bible]. Spirit (Latin spiritus from spiro to breath…) simply signifies breath or air in motion. Ghost appears in Saxon as gast, in German as geist, in Danish as geest, in Irish as gasda, and seems to be derived radically from some word signifying to move or rush; Irish, gaisim to flow; English, gush, gust… So that the Hebrew [word translated as spirit] (spirit or breath or wind), the Greek [word translated as spirit] … , the Latin spiritus, and the old English ghost, all suggest the breathing or moving of air, and are all nearly equivalent.3

It was only later that ghost got the meaning of an ‘apparition of a dead person’.4 Because this is now the most typical meaning of the word ghost, modern translations of the Bible use the word spirit consistently.5

Further reading


1. Meaning 1. in ‘ghost‘ on Oxford Dictionaries

2. See “Origin” section of the entries ‘ghost‘ and ‘spirit‘ on Oxford Dictionaries

3. E. H. BickerstethThe Spirit of Life (London: Religious Tract Society, 1869), p. 37 footnote

4. See under ‘ghost’ in The Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories (Springfield: Merriam-Webster, 1991), p. 196-197

5. ibid. Cf., e.g., Mat. 1:18,20 and 3:11  in the KJV with the same verse in CEB, CEV, ESV, GNT, HCSB, LEB, NASB, NCV, NEB, NET, NIV, NLT, NRSV, REB, RSV, etc.

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