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TWTS: It "ghosts" without saying ... well, anything

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Have you ever struck up a friendship with someone who, after chatting and texting with you regularly, suddenly cuts off all communication without a single word of explanation? This rather discourteous phenomenon is commonly referred to as "ghosting."

Even if you've been fortunate enough to avoid this experience, chances are anyone who's been on social media in the last 15 years has come across this seemingly recent verbification of "ghost." However, "ghost" was a verb long before the internet existed.

The Oxford English Dictionary traces it back to the 1600s. Shakespeare used "ghost" in the sense of "haunt." "Ghosting" could also refer to something haunting or unpleasantly affecting your thoughts. For example, someone or something might ghost your dreams.

A series of other meanings emerged in the 1600s. There's a small amount of evidence of "ghost" meaning "to die." By the 19th century, "to ghost" could refer to moving like a ghost. This use pops up in sports coverage, to describe the actions of a player who glides effortlessly through the court or field, often without being touched. For example, "The soccer player ghosted through to score."

The list goes on. In sailing, "ghost" could refer to making decent headway despite a lack of wind. In the 20th century, "ghost" morphed into a shortened form of "ghostwrite." If you "ghosted" for someone, you basically wrote their book on their behalf.

By the late 20th century, "ghost" turns up in African American English, meaning "to leave suddenly, especially without notice." It's quite possible this usage is connected to the 21st-century meaning of "ghost" that came along once we had texting and various other technologies.

"Ghost" is just one on a lengthy list of English verbs that have undergone shifts in function and/or meaning. To hear our conversation about "chat" listen to the audio above.

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Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.