Word Count

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Word Tasting Note: A "Ghost" Story

Watch a video of me reading this ghost story, if you would like, or read it below. Or read along with me.

This word has a ghost in it, a little guest in the host: a letter h, symbol of a soft breath, here seen but not heard — like many a spectre.

In Old English, this word was gást, with no h. By the 1400s, it had changed to gost or goost. But it was not until William Caxton brought over the printing press from the continent that the h appeared: Caxton had spent much time in Bruges, and when he printed this word he added an h to match the h he knew in the Flemish gheest.

If Caxton had taken a freshly printed sheet, the ink still wet, and folded it, the ink would have produced another ghost: a light mirror image of the printed matter. This is one of many similar things called ghosts, such as phantom images on televisions and on radars. Things seen but not signifying the same thing.

But what, in origin, is a ghost? Let us return to that letter h. It stands for a breath. And breath has been equated with the spirit, the soul, in many cultures, languages, and times. The word for that part of us that is immortal was, in Old English, gást — not that your soul is a guest in your body, but it is the ghost that you give up when you die; it ascends to join the Holy Ghost and the heavenly host.

Over the centuries, we have come to prefer the Latin-derived spirit for that, and have reserved ghost for a spectral being — especially the echo of a person who has died. A haunted house may have a ghost that repeats the same action over and over again, something emblematic for that person, perhaps something fraught with emotion. It can be an ordinary action of an ordinary person, but to see something so eerie, so eldritch, as a bodiless spectre — a ghost without the machine — will leave us frightened.

But how are these ghosts wandering around if their spirits are supposed to be in Heaven or Hell? This is why I said echo. It has been suggested — I seem to recall by Kurt Vonnegut, but I have only the suggestion of a memory of where he suggested it — that ghosts are not actual beings but simply echo images. Something passed through and left ripples, and the ghost is the ripples. See it come… watch it go… st.

I wonder, too, whether the ripples may be not from what the supposed person saw or felt, but what we have seen and felt, perhaps what we remember or imagine of the person. A ghost could be of a living thing. I think of Laurie Anderson's "Gravity's Angel": "Well, we were just laying there. And this ghost of your other lover walked in. And stood there. Made of thin air. Full of desire."

There are many places I pass by where I can almost see, feel, or taste what happened there. Something that involved me. An argument. An accident seen or averted. A kiss. A casual touch or glance, full of intention. An understanding reached. I can stand in these places and look where I looked and almost see what I saw, almost feel what I felt. The person or people involved may be living or dead, near or far, but there is a ghost there, just for me. Made of thin air. Full of desire. Or dread. My desire or dread.

And ghosts can be things that should have happened. Or things that I think happened but did not. Things that I just wanted to have happened. For any person, their home town is a ghost town, a town not empty but full of the empties of pasts consumed and possibilities not realized.

And sometimes our ghosts create a reality. A thing that does not belong but sits there silently before our eyes because we think it should be there. Not a whole and not a hole, holy or unholy, not a sign but… a sigh, unrealized. The h in ghost.


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James Harbeck is an editor by day, a designer by night, and a writer by Jove! His love of wine tasting crossed with his love of language to spawn word tasting notes, which appear daily at his blog, Sesquiotica. Buy his just-released book of salacious verse on English usage, Songs of Love and Grammar, on Lulu.com. Click here to read more articles by James Harbeck.

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Comments from our users:

Friday January 10th, 5:24 AM
Comment by: Julian Williams - Artist (Narberth West Wales United Kingdom)
Your article goes to the heart of modern neuroscience; theories about perception, phenomenology and qualia.

As an artist I am on a similar journey, trying to square the circle between creating false perceptions, ghosts and spirits on paper against the reality of the physical world and objective truth. An endless task that shifts with every living moment.

An example: Broomstick ghosts. When I look at a broomstick my perception immediately starts hunting for meaning of that object, which of the many broomstick ghosts should I see. As time passes I might then see a black cat, which tells me the broomsticks probably belongs to a witch, or I mights see a vase of flowers and broomstick ghost that pops out is Cinderella. Every word and every object is a surrounded with connections to other things, a collection of ghostlike associations. This is the nature of thought, which is always across time, as against perception which is transient and mercurial.

I have a blog at www.drawingandillusion.blogspot.co.uk
Friday January 10th, 9:42 AM
Comment by: James R.
Wonderful column that seems to have that inner poem haunting it that all great writing does. In the beginning of Moby Dick, Melville asserts that the h is the most important letter in whale. I really loved this column.
Friday January 10th, 10:08 AM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Beautiful, James - lovely images, word plays, allusions, connections - reading it and hearing it is like watching close-up, time lapse photography of the blooming of one flower after another, seeing layered petal-words unfolding. I'll save this and watch it again. Thank you.

The Happy Quibbler
Friday January 10th, 1:13 PM
Comment by: Nancy M. (Little River,, CA)
I love this evocative piece! Makes me think of my recently dead 98-year old mother, whose ashes are boxed in the storage shed til spring, who lingers in every room in this house; of the fact that I live in a ghost town; and it makes me think of con trails crossing my Nevada sky.

Nancy in Tuscarora, NV

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