It was with the burgeoning of online dating apps like Tinder that the practice of ghosting became prevalent. Photo: Shutterstock
Language Matters
by Lisa Lim
Language Matters
by Lisa Lim

‘I’m totally ghosting Taylor’: Tinder and hip hop’s effect on the spooky word

  • Emerging in Old English as ‘gast’, the word ghost started to develop related meanings in the early 20th century with ‘ghost students’ and ‘ghost patients’
  • Today, most people are probably more afraid of being ghosted on Tinder than of supernatural spirits

It’s Hallowe’en – a Scottish shortening of Allhallow-even, the Eve of All Saints (Day), “hallow” meaning “holy person, saint”. This festival, with origins in the Celtic Samhain, marks the day when ghosts return to Earth.

The word “ghost” – a supernatural being or the spirit or soul of a person – of Germanic (and ultimately Indo-European) origin, emerged as the Old English gast (other spellings include gaast, gæst), becoming gost or gooste (and other variations) in Middle English. Forms with gh- appeared in late 15th century texts, showing influence from the Middle Dutch gheest; this form gradually became established in the 16th century, a result of printers’ connections with the Low Countries.

In contemporary times, most people are probably less fearful of ghosts than of ghosting.

A related meaning of ghost was already in existence in the early 20th century: ghost students and ghost patients are persons named on a register or record who prove difficult or impossible to trace.

‘Chinese Halloween’ sticks to its roots, unlike this week’s celebrations

Verbal and adjectival forms of ghost developed in 1980s colloquial American – originally and chiefly African-American – English: to ghost, or to be ghost, get ghost, or go ghost, meaning to leave a situation especially suddenly or hurriedly, or to absent oneself. The erstwhile Californian newspaper Times-Advocate reported in 1986: “Instead of goodbye it’s: I’m ghost.” Such usage gained popularity in 1990s hip hop, primarily relating to sexual encounters, especially one-night stands.

In the 21st century digital age, the verb “to ghost (someone)” evolved to mean to ignore or pretend not to know someone, specifically in ceasing to respond to them via electronic contact such as texts, emails and social media, especially as a means to end a relationship. Early attestations from 2007 are found in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and Urban Dictionary – the latter giving the example “I’m totally ghosting Ania as of right now.”

It was with the burgeoning of online dating apps (particularly Tinder in 2012) that the practice of ghosting became so prevalent that it received significant attention in mainstream media and fields such as psychology and health. Such increased currency has led to the terms “ghosting” and “to ghost” being added to dictionaries – (in 2016), Merriam-Webster (2017) and the OED (2021).

The meaning has expanded beyond romantic partners. A 2020 Washington Post article notes: “Yes, friends ghost one another. Relatives do, too. Workers ghost their employers.” With professional ghosting – including ghosting coasting – also rife, there are calls to ghost ghosting. Perhaps that’s the zeitgeist – spirit of the times – needed.