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Do You Believe in Ghosts?


People wear ghost costumes as they join a Halloween Parade in the Philippines, 2013. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

From VOA Learning English, this is Words and Their Stories.

On this program, we talk about the origins and usage of common expressions in American English.

With Halloween just around the corner, today we explore the haunted world of ghosts!

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary says the word “ghost” goes back a thousand years to the “earliest recorded evidence of the language.”

The first meaning of “ghost” was “the seat of life or intelligence.” And it still has that meaning in some expressions.

However, today, the word “ghost” usually means the soul of a dead person. This meaning is based on the idea that a person's spirit and body are separate. The spirit can continue existing long after the body has died.

An older spelling of “ghost” is “g-a-s-t.” “Ghast,” spelled with an “h,” is the root of words like aghast, meaning struck with terror or shock, and ghastly, meaning very frightening. For example, I was aghast at her ghastly appearance.

The German word for “ghost” is “geist.” Two common words in American English that end in “-geist” are poltergeist and zeitgeist.

Poltergeist is a ghost that makes strange noises and causes objects to move. It is also the title of a 1982 film, remade in 2015.

The movie Poltergeist often makes it on the “scariest movies of all time” lists. And all you have to say is, “They’re here!” for people to know what movie you are talking about.

Poltergeist (1982) Official Trailer

Zeitgeist means the spirit of the age or spirit of the time. It is the leading set of ideals or beliefs that cause people to act during a certain time. For example, you could say that the songs of singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie captured the zeitgeist of 1960s America.

As we said at the top of the program, Halloween is just around the corner.

President Barack Obama pats a child dressed as Superman on the head during a Halloween event at the White House, 2014.
President Barack Obama pats a child dressed as Superman on the head during a Halloween event at the White House, 2014.

During Halloween, kids dressed as ghosts are common sights.

The costume is very simple: just throw on a white cloth that covers you from head to foot. But do not expect to win any costume competitions! You would not have a ghost of a chance.

People use this expression to mean that something is very unlikely to happen.

Another popular ghost expression is “You look like you’ve seen a ghost!” We say this when people look frightened or shocked. After all, a ghost is dead. So, it might be an unpleasant surprise to see one.

The sight might even make you turn pale as a ghost. This is used when people lose color in their face. Sometime this happens when a person is scared. But a bad cold or flu can also turn you as pale as a ghost.

“Ghost” can also be a verb.

In the 1880s the term ghost meant a person who works in secret for another person. The most common usage is in “ghostwriting.” This term means someone is paid to write material that is credited to someone else.

Ghostwriters produce speeches for politicians. They also produce books for authors who want to tell their life stories but are not professional writers.

And sometimes ghostwriters are involved in a series of books -- like the children’s mystery stories based around the teenage detective Nancy Drew. The series began in 1930. The author given credit was Carolyn Keene. But she was not even real! Ghostwriters did all the work.

Another expression using “ghost” as a verb is simply to ghost. This does not mean to die. It means to leave a place or event without saying “goodbye” to anyone.

You can ghost from your job. You can ghost from a party. You can even ghost from a relationship. This is when you stop communicating with someone because you are simply no longer interested in them.

But I will not ghost from Words and Their Stories.

I am Anna Matteo officially saying to all of you, goodbye!

Do you have any “ghost” or “spirit” expressions in your language? Let us know, in the Comments Section.

Anna Matteo wrote this story for VOA Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor. At the end of program, Ray Parker Jr. sings the song “Ghostbusters” from the movie Ghostbusters.

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Words in This Story

around the corner phrase very near

haunt v. to visit or live in as a ghost <Spirits haunt the house.>

soul n. the spiritual part of a person that is believed to give life to the body and in many religions is believed to live forever

pale adj. having a skin color that is closer to white than is usual or normal

aghast adj. shocked and upset

ghastly adj. very shocking or horrible

poltergeist n. a ghost that makes strange noises and causes objects to move

zeitgeist n. often capitalized the general beliefs, ideas, and spirit of a time and place

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