Holy Spirit or Holy Ghost

Date: May 5, 2024
Author: Fr. Edward McNamara, LC

Question: You mentioned in your first discussion [on the use of Holy Spirit and Holy Ghost] that “Ghost” derives from German, Geist, whereas “Spirit” directly derives from Latin. It has always puzzled me that some traditional Catholics oppose the change of usage. I would think it would be applauded. However, it does create a paradox in the naming of the Third Person of the Trinity, with “Holy” coming from German, heilige, and “Spirit” from Latin. Perhaps consistency is the argument still in play. -- C.D., Alabama


Answer: Effectively we have dealt with a similar question on May 8, 2012, but it bears some repeating and updating.


I would say that the change or conservation reflects the evolution of both words. Both Holy Ghost and Holy Spirit were used to refer to the Third Person of the Trinity well before the 20th century, although the former was the most common in biblical and prayer texts.


The word ghost is of remote Germanic origin and comes from Old English gast, meaning soul, life, breath, good or bad spirit, angel or demon.


Christian texts in Old English use gast to translate the Latin Spiritus, from where we get Holy Ghost. In Middle English Holy Ghost was often written as one word.


The more modern sense of a disembodied dead person is first attested in the late 14th century but remained quite rare.


In modern English, the word gast sneaked into the word aghast, which means "to be terrified, shocked, or rendered breathless." The related German word Geist, which means both spirit and ghost, has occasionally found its way into English in words such as poltergeist.


Spirit comes to English from Latin through French; it also means soul, courage, vigor, breath. The original uses in English are mainly translations from the Vulgate Latin Bible that translate the Greek Pneuma and Hebrew Ruah. Christians also made a distinction between soul and spirit. Spirit, in the sense of a supernatural being, is found from the 13th century.


When translating the Bible into English the scholars behind the King James Version (1611) opted to use the term Holy Ghost. This is used 90 times in the KJV, while Holy Spirit occurs seven times. The reason for the choice is not clear, as the words Ghost and Spirit translate the same Greek words.


This use of Holy Ghost had already been made in the Douay-Rheims Catholic translation, first published in 1582 and revised several times. This was the Bible chiefly used by English-speaking Catholics for several centuries.


Practically all recent translations of the Bible, both Protestant and Catholic, have preferred Holy Spirit in most instances.


The reason is probably because the meaning of ghost has gradually shifted over the last 300 years and now predominantly refers to the vision of the specter of a deceased person or a demonic apparition.


This change in biblical texts was already standard well before it became necessary to translate the liturgical texts into English. Since liturgical and biblical texts are closely related, it was natural to follow the biblical standard in liturgical translation.


It must also be remembered that in literature the popularity of the "ghost story" enjoyed an enormous boom from the mid-19th century on, a trend compounded by the advent of cinema and television.


All of this probably led translators to conclude that the meaning of Ghost had been so transformed and stereotyped that continuing to apply it to refer to the Divine Person was more likely to lead to confusion than would the alternative expression Holy Spirit.


Holy Spirit, therefore, is now universally used in all official texts, and over the last 50 years or so has become common usage. The expression Holy Ghost, however, when properly understood, retains its validity in the context of personal prayer for those who wish to continue using it.


It is true that holy is also a word of Germanic origin. However, as we saw with the case of ghost, the reasons for adjusting or retaining a word has little to do with its origins and everything to do with its current meaning in English.


According to several sources the word holy derives from the Old English halig meaning "holy, consecrated, sacred; godly; ecclesiastical." This in turn hails from Proto-Germanichailaga (source also of Old Norse heilagr, Danish hellig, Old Frisian helich, Old Saxon helag, Middle Dutch helich, Old High German heilag, German heilig, and Gothic hailags).


The current meaning in Germanic languages, as a translation of the Latin sanctus, is a creation of Christian literature.


Scholars have not yet been able to determine the pre-Christian meaning of the word because practically all literature at this time is Christian literature. There is some probability that it is related to the Old English hal (modern “whole”) in the sense of “healthy, intact, complete inviolable or uninjured,” and Old High German heil ("health, happiness, good luck").


Holy in English usually denotes a stronger meaning than similar words insofar as holiness seems to imply a closer more direct connection to God. For example, we refer to the Holy Bible but to the sacred writings of other religions.


As one tome points out: “He who is holy is absolutely or essentially free from sin; sacred is not a word of personal character. The opposite of holy is sinful or wicked; that of sacred is secular, profane, or common” (Century Dictionary, 1895).


Only in the last two centuries has the word holy been used as an intensifying word (from 1837); in expletives since 1880s (such as holy smoke, 1883; holy mackerel, 1876; holy cow, 1914; holy moly, etc.), most of them euphemisms for holy Christ or holy Moses.


Holy League is used of various European alliances. The Holy Alliance was formed personally by the sovereigns of Russia, Austria and Prussia in 1815; it ended in 1830.


Saint and saintly, as translations of the Latin sanctus, are more recent in English through the old French word seinte.


This word was primarily used as an adjective meaning holy, pious, consecrated, devout, divinely inspired, worthy of veneration or worship. It first appeared in the early 12th century, usually used before proper names (Sainte Marian Magdalene, etc.). It displaced or altered Old English sanct, which is directly from the Latin sanctus.


From an adjective prefixed to the name of a canonized person, from 1200 on, it came to be used in English as a noun referring to a specific canonized Christian.


It could also refer to "one of the elect, a member of the body of Christ, one consecrated or set apart to the service of God"; also in an Old Testament sense "a pre-Christian prophet." In the late 13th century it was sometimes used to refer to a morally upright and pious person.


Saintly, as a derived form, would seem to have been coined by St. Thomas More in 1532.


Although it might appear to be a more literate translation from the Latin, I think that, in modern English usage, referring to the Third Person of the Holy Trinity as the Saintly Spirit would not convey the same degree of vigor that the word Holy continues to have in spite of some of the less-reverent expressions that we have seen above.


We can then, I think, happily keep the Holy Spirit with its delightful combination of Germanic Latinity and invoke him in any of the many wonderful hymns that Christians have composed in his honor over the centuries: Veni Creator Spiritus, Come Holy Ghost, Creator Spirit.


Come, thou Holy Spirit, come,

And from thy celestial home

Shed a ray of light divine;

Come, thou Father of the poor,

Come, thou source of all our store,

Come, within our bosoms shine.


(Veni, Sancte Spiritus [13th century], translated by Edward Caswall [1814-78])


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