ASK FATHER: Holy Spirit or Holy Ghost?

spirit_Vatican_IIFrom a reader…


My brother and I were having a discussion about the use of
the terms ‘Holy Ghost’ vs ‘Holy Spirit’. We both attend the
traditional Latin Mas, and are interested to know the origin of why ‘Spiritu Sancto’ is often translated as ‘Holy Ghost’ in traditional missals and books. I am sure there’s a good reason, but I don’t know what it is.

As far as I’m concerned we can use both, interchangeably.

Well… maybe not…

Come, Holy Ghost, Creator blest,
and in our souls take up Thy rest;…


Come, Holy Spirit, Creator blest,
and in our souls take up Thy rest;

Nope.  Ghost, hands down.

I’m pretty sure that we English speakers have traditionally used Holy Ghost because of early translations of Holy Writ, namely the King James Bible and the Douay Rheims, even though both those Bibles use both Ghost and Spirit (fewer times).  The KJV capitalized “Ghost” when it was certain that the Third Person of the Trinity was involved.

Ghost, related to German Geist (which is used today for the Holy Spirit), in its roots is any sort of spirit.  “Ghost” often translated Bible Greek pneuma and Latin spiritus.

It became a matter of common parlance. People memorized traditional prayers with Ghost.  We sang hymns with Ghost.

I think we should also use archaic words in our prayers, private and congregational.  Prayer should be from and of the heart, but we can use he richness of our language to express ourselves, even in solidarity with our forebears.

Also, over time it seems that translators had a strong feeling for “ghost” as a personal being, though not in the sense of a phantasm that needed “busters”.  I wonder if, today, with the way “spirit” has become so diluted in meaning, “ghost” might not make a profitable comeback.

Any way, I don’t like the idea that we have to surrender to contemporary fashion in language.  Old language is also good, so long as it communicates what it is intended to communicate.  I don’t think all the old words are about to give up the ghost quite yet.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. pseudomodo says:

    and with your Ghost.

    hmmmmmmmm….. maybe not! :-)

  2. WVC says:

    ” I wonder if, today, with the way “spirit” has become so diluted in meaning, “ghost” might not make a profitable comeback.”

    I am off this opinion entirely. With no ill will toward anyone who uses the phrase “Holy Spirit” – I’ve raised my children to use the phrase “Holy Ghost.”

  3. Imrahil says:

    I don’t think all the old words are about to give up the ghost quite yet.

    Rev’d Father, I think that quip is worth at least half of one of these gold stars of yours.

  4. The Masked Chicken says:

    “The Lord be with you…

    And with your ghost…”

    Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

    The Chicken

  5. TomG says:

    Beautifully balanced, as always, Father. I know my FSSP pastor will agree :).

  6. Sword40 says:

    Great response, Father. I totally agree with you. [I’m sure sure you mean the part where I wrote: “As far as I’m concerned we can use both, interchangeably.”] Convincing OF Catholics otherwise can be a bit “dicey”. In our FSSP parish, it took a bit of work to get the majority to use Ghost, rather than Spirit, but it has slowly caught on.

  7. will99lang says:

    The Divine Worship uses Holy Spirit and Holy Ghost several times in the Mass, to each title it`s prayers. For all of you who are not sure, the Divine Worship is the name for the Mass of the former Anglicans who reunited with Rome.

  8. teomatteo says:

    “..I don’t like the idea that we have to surrender to contemporary fashion in language. ” And that is why I continue to use the word ‘oriental’ when I mean east asian. Like “We three kings of asian are….”.

  9. samwise says:

    Filioque-esque issue: Yves Congar questions the English & German Ghost/Geist in his Opus “I believe in the Holy Spirit” because they are prone to misinterpretation as indistinct from the Person of Christ. The word Spirit is more precise in proceeding as a distinct Person from the Father and the Son

  10. Kate says:

    In our family we made the transition from “spirit” to “ghost” many years ago after our pastor began to continually use the phrase, “the Father, the Son, and THEIR spirit.” Ghost just seems to have a personhood connotation while it’s easy to think of spirit as a part of a greater whole person. It was our way to revolt what seemed like heresy, and we continue to use it though pastors have come and gone.

  11. WVC says:

    @teomatteo – as someone of Korean descent I can tell you . . . . that I also teach my kids to use the word Oriental. Honestly, I never could understand why that word fell out of fashion (not that there’s ever any actual logic behind the PC police). What kind of sense does Asian make? So folks from Vietnam, Korea, Japan, China, Russia, India, and Pakistan are all the same? I think not.

  12. “Any way, I don’t like the idea that we have to surrender to contemporary fashion in language. Old language is also good, so long as it communicates what it is intended to communicate. I don’t think all the old words are about to give up the ghost quite yet.”

    I’m sure our friend , Miss Jane Austen would heartily agree with you Father… I’m sure also the book publishers, sellers, readers and filmmakers that profit madly on her “old language.”

    A phrase commonly used in Regency England for describing one’s physical body: “ my fleshy envelope”. I think sometimes contemporary language tries too hard to be, well, contemporary !

    By the bye… trying to find someone going to England perhaps after the New Year as I would “swoon” to have a ten pound note with Jane on it.
    I’ll be waiting on the fainting couch with my aromatic vinegars until then.
    Cheers! ;)

  13. TWF says:

    There is nothing wrong with using “Holy Ghost” and there is nothing wrong with using “Holy Spirit”. Spirit has the obvious advantages of being a cognate with the equivalent word in the various Romance languages. In my bilingual household, my toddler will likely pick up Espiritu Santo from his mother…
    I can certainly see why some would prefer to use “Holy Ghost”. What I resent is the implication, from some, that it is somehow inherently superior to Holy Spirit.

  14. tho says:

    This article is one of the reasons I favor Father z’s blog over all others. Please, keep in mind that I was in my early to middle 30s when Vatican II came along. There were so many unnecessary changes made in such a short time frame, that it gave many of us the shudders. Words such as Spirit were imposed with no questions asked, along with Faith, Hope and Love, instead of the traditional Faith, Hope and Charity. It still bothers me today because I think that Charity is a much better description of that virtue. To be slightly vulgar, one could be engaged in adultery, or fornication, and could be described as making love, it wouldn’t work if you said they were making charity

  15. jplsr says:

    The use of “Ghost” in English likely comes from the Anglo-Saxon “gast,” rather than the analogous German “Geist.” Someone who sees a “gast” is said to be “aghast.” The sight is also said to be “ghastly.” In the English tradition, a ghost is always considered to be a person, even with spectral qualities. Latin “spiritus” meaning “breath” or “wind” is much more ambiguous. “Spirit” is a mistranslation of the Latin “spiritus,” since in English it commonly represents an unpersonified movement of feeling, such as “school spirit, “or “good spirits,” or even distilled alcohols. Just because the spelling is similar in both languages does not mean that the one is a good translation of the other. That is the number one mistake of beginners in translation.

  16. Gerhard says:

    “Spirit” has an ICELish modernity to it, leaving that metallic side-taste when folks use baking soda instead of yeast. It does not convey that fundamental inner essence of what makes us a person which the word “ghost” denotes. English does not deal neatly with the ghost/spirit dichotomy. In Dutch, for example, you have the “Heiligen Geest”. “Geest” is “soul”, or what we now call a “spirit”. To be “geestig” means to have a lively sense of humour. “Spiritus” is what a Dutchman puts in his burner or lamp. “Spook” (pronounced “spoke”), is, well, a ghost. No one in their right mind would refer to the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity as the “Heiligen Spook”. Also, old language can be very subtle and expressive, in ways our modern lyophilized terms cannot match. The 17C Dutch author, Joost van Vondel, somewhere describes a flying angel as “swaying through Heaven on his pens” (“door de Hemel op zyn pennen zwieren”). In the English 1962 Missal, the translation for (I think) the Easter Vigil Mass includes the wonderful reference to having completed our Lenten “ghostly exercises”. It also lovingly refers to the wax of the Easter candle being produced by the “mother bee”. And the prosaic “cattle” is rendered somewhere as “beeves”. I can picture, hear, and smell the latter ruminating ponderously, but the former just makes me think of so many economic units that need to be wrangled into a dusty stockyard. There is also a profound closeness when we refer to each other with respectful formality. When my daughter says “Good night father”, and I answer (as she wants me to) with “Good night daughter” we both remind ourselves of who we are, with all the rich treasury of obligations and sentiments this entails, mutatis mutandis, without in any way decreasing fondness, but rather increasing it. I read somewhere recently that the Roman canon is impossible to translate into vernacular English. So is “Et cum spiritu tuo”.

  17. Gerhard says:

    Oh, by the way, try reading St Jerome’s Vulgate Latin translation of St Luke’s Gospel. It’s not hard, with the English beside it to nudge you along (try the excellent Baronius Press version). You can almost literally hear Jesus speak and see his gestures as he told his parables. It is ***that good***. You also catch meanings that we now scratch our heads over in our mundane modern mush translations.

  18. Cantor says:

    Having grown up in the era of Casper, I think we figured “Spirit” was more appropriate for us as we grew more elderly, but “Ghost” worked just fine for us when we were talking with the little kids. Situational Ethics in action!

  19. From a purely linguistic point of view I can say two things. One: no language is “better” or “worse” than any other language. [I’m not sure we will accept that premise… but keep going.] Two: No two languages are equal in markedness which is why one language will be more difficult to learn than another.

    But that is linguistics, not faith. I am often jarred by the way Latin, Greek, Syriac, and Hebrew get translated into English. I make my living writing textbooks for ESL and I of course feel strongly that learning a second language is a very positive thing for people to do. And yet, when I go to Mass, I do not want to hear English. It sounds profane. It sounds dirty. I am filled with very potent negative emotions so much so that I start to even question the validity of the Mass. Now of course I know intellectually that the Mass is valid but I also feel strongly that English is not an appropriate language for the Mass. It just seems to cheapen it somehow.

    Using English in the Mass introduces a casualness and familiarity that really should not be there in my opinion. Should we not be filled with fear and awe when we approach the altar of the Most High? Are we bigger than the Mass or is the Mass bigger than us?

    And it’s not just that I understand English. I understand Latin about as well as anyone. My wife and I speak Latin to each other everyday since we shared no other language when we first met. We pray the Liturgy of the Hours together as a family in Latin and every word and every sentence rings true in my ears and I have no lag in understanding.

    The point is, Latin used to be spoken by a people who rejected God and then the church conquered those people. The church conquered Latin; took it, sanctified it, and made it into something that today people use to get closer to God. English still feels like the enemy of the church just as the government of the British isles shows us when they continue to pass laws that make it easy to sin and difficult to remain faithful.

    Some linguists argue that it should not be so but the fact is, which language you use is part of your identity. When you use a language for any purpose you add to the strength of that language. You engage in the community of people who identify with that language. Arabic is the enemy of Christianity so it boggles my mind how that could be allowed in the church. English is the enemy of the church as well.

    Some may argue that it is too much to ask a new convert to learn a second language in order to join a religion. But why? Humans are hard wired to learn language. Language acquisition isn’t a matter of someone being intelligent, it is simply a matter of spending enough time doing it. The US Army has language schools that can turn even the dumbest idiots they have into near perfect speakers of any language. As well as that, many Jewish communities teach Hebrew to all the children in the congregation. The Greek Orthodox teach Greek to incoming members.

    There are four major languages spoken widely in the United States and English is only one of them. But when someone wants to get permanent residency or become an American Citizen, they have to show that they have learned English. We’ve set that standard and many other countries also set a language standard because they want to make sure you are part of the community. If we want to continue to call ourselves LATIN Catholics, should we not do the same?

    But instead we’re discussing whether to use “ghost” or “spirit” in a translation of something that ought not be translated in the first place. When I teach, I teach English to Japanese students I tell them: Don’t translate. Understand in English. English is not Japanese written in code. And thus it should be with our Latin. Understand in Latin. Don’t translate. Latin is not English written in code. [Great point. Well said.]

  20. cdnpriest says:

    This reminds me of a very old theological book I was once reading on the interior life. It was obviously written in the 19th century. I personally tend to prefer traditional language and don’t see the need to change vocabulary that has been consecrated by traditional usage just for the sake of keeping up with the times, so I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book (Sorry, I can’t remember the title). I do also realize that words have changed in meaning over the years. As I was reading along, I came across a very interesting expression that made me chuckle. It was a section of the book that was speaking about full disclosure in spiritual direction. And it went something like this (I’m quoting from memory, emphasis mine): “Make sure to reveal all of your sinful tendencies to your GHOSTLY DIRECTOR and to hold nothing back.” I love how that expression sounds to modern ears! Since then, I have shared it with some of my ghostly directees.

    [I am minded of the moment in Romeo and Juliet when Romeo says:
    Hence will I to my ghostly friar’s close cell,
    His help to crave and my dear hap to tell.]

  21. bobk says:

    Many years ago kingjames-ese was explained to me thus: When it says ghost it means spirit and vice versa. Hence the disciples seeing Jesus walking on the water they thought he was a “spirit”; they thought he was a ghost. The Holy “Ghost” is meant to be “Spirit”. Nobody ever said into thy hands I commend my spirit and meant their ghost.

  22. Ed the Roman says:

    Just as pneumas and spiritus relate to air and breathing, ghost relates to gust (of wind).

  23. Warren says:

    In our Ordinariate (Chair of Saint Peter) parish, both Holy Ghost and Holy Spirit are sung and spoken, and both are entirely understood (without debate or confusion) to refer to the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity.

  24. Claudio Salvucci says:

    I’m looking at the Gloria in a Latin-English Missal from the mid-1700s. It ends with “together with the Holy Ghost…” but then the response to the priest is “and with thy spirit”. Same with the English translation of the Mass from the Baltimore Manual of Prayers in the 1880s. Same with the Lasance Missal in the 1940s. In Challoner’s “Garden of the Soul” (the 1764 edition), the staple English Catholic devotional for decades, “Holy Ghost” and “Holy Spirit” seem about evenly distributed.

    Maybe someday we’ll learn to just be happy with these odd linguistic anomalies as part of our Anglophone heritage and not try to jam them into some newfangled standard of semantic purity we made up on the spot.

  25. FrJohnDowney says:

    I always thought that the difference was just linguistic and not in concept at all. English, bering a Germanic language, is however influenced greatly by the Latin languages. The German word is “Geist”, which means the same thing as “Espiritu”. Ghost and Spirit are the same in my little mind.

  26. JesusFreak84 says:

    I have no preference and tend to say “Spirit” simply because that’s what I was taught as a kid and it’s a pretty ingrained habit. (We also say “Spirit” in my UGCC parish, but I don’t remember precisely what’s said in Ukrainian; it kind of sounds like “sviatu” or something along those lines.) That said, I’ve known parents who use “Spirit” for no other reason than, when the kids hear “Ghost,” they think like Halloween ghosts or whatever and get terrified =-p

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  28. Ef-lover says:

    I use both terms ghost and spirit. When I taught CCD in NY if the DRE heard a student say Holy Ghost she would correct them and tell them it is Spirit.

  29. ChesterFrank says:

    I also had always thought that the Church switched firm Ghost to Spirit when Casper entered the scene, Casper the friendly Ghost not Kasper the liberal cardinal.

  30. samwise says:

    Another issue with middle English is the word” hell” in the Apostles Creed. Christ descended to the realm of the dead,sheol,etc not he’ll or gehenna

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