Why do we say Holy Ghost?

I went down a bit of a linguistic rabbit hole today.

One of the FB groups I’m on posted “Why do we say Holy Ghost? Is it a ghost?”

After the first minute of smacking my head, I started really looking into the question.

Ghost is an English word of Germanic origin, which is used to translate spiritus from latin into old English. It’s first used in Old English as such: sē hālga gāst is Old English for “The Holy Ghost”. Spirit didn’t enter English as a translation for spiritus until the Middle English Period (after the Norman Conquest, when the Normans brought more French and Latinate words into English).

Ghost and geist are direct cognates, from English and German respectively. Geist has a meaning of spirit in the supernatural sense, as well as the meaning of apparition and of something having a frightening appearance. It also has a sense of furor or agitation, a sort of ecstasy. Thus, a sense of being filled ‘with the Holy Ghost’ carries a sense of ecstatic experience. Geist can also refer to a ‘spirit of wine’, alcohol (like the English spirits).

Latin spiritus is used to translate greek pneuma ( πνεῦμα), meaning breath, vital spirit. The German geist was thus also able to take on this meaning in the Christian era.

Geist is also used as a translation for French esprit, which brings with the idea of mind or thought: intellectual brilliance, wit, innovation, erudition, etc. However, this is a later meaning in German, from the 18th century. Ghost never has had this meaning. Compound words in German give us English loanwords like zeitgeist (“spirit of the age”).

French esprit is a word that can be translated as thought, and also a word for spirit in the English sense. So the Holy Spirit in French is Esprit Saint, much like the German Heilige Geist. The German/French meaning of thought for the word used to translate spiritus informs the Apostolic Johannite Church’s construction of the Trinitarian Formula.

In many places in our liturgy, we refer to the Trinity as the Father, the Word, and the Thought. Since the AJC comes out of the French Tradition via l'Église Johannite des Chrétiens Primitifs and the Lévitikon, we find it appropriate to use that meaning of Esprit/Geist in the translation into English.

Personally, I find this linquistic construction to have a wonderful esoteric meaning, especially under the idea of lex orandi, lex credendi
 (loosely, “what is prayed is what is believed”), that when we pray to the Father, the Word, and the Thought we have a wonderful spiritual interaction between the source of all things, the expression of those things, and the internal mental reception of those things. And all of these three (source, expression, reception) interact to form our experience of reality: What is, how it is expressed, and how we receive it, are three parts of the journey of existence we all travel upon.

To bring us back to the start, the reason we say “Holy Ghost” is because of a complex interaction between linguistic traditions. In the AJC, we prefer the idea of intellectual contemplation to the vision of an apparition of a frightening God.


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