The noun ghost has been around a very long time, since before 900, when Old English was spoken. Originally it referred to the soul of a dead person or a disembodied spirit, and this meaning is still in use. In the recent past, ghost and ghosting have expanded in meaning, and today this term is often evoked in relation to dating.
How do you know if you’ve been ghosted?
You are a victim of ghosting if you one day realize that the person you’ve been seeing for two months is no longer replying to your texts. The verb form is also widely used; you can date someone for a few months and then ghost. Dictionary.com defines ghosting as “the practice of suddenly ending all contact with a person without explanation, especially in a romantic relationship.”
With ghosting there is no break-up conversation, perhaps because the relationship was not serious enough to warrant a formal break-up or because confrontation was seen as too difficult or not worth the trouble. Whatever the reason, the act of ghosting effectively ends a relationship. This sense of ghosting is a logical metaphorical extension of the original sense since exes can have the quality of lingering long after they’ve exited a person’s life.
When did people start ghosting?
The “ending a relationship” sense of ghosting is relatively new to English, but how new? On November 23, 2007, an Urban Dictionary entry for this sense of ghost appeared: “To ghost: Cutting all ties with a girl. I’m totally ghosting Ania as of right now.” Before 2007, a few similar senses of ghosting and ghost pop up in Urban Dictionary, however, they aren’t in this specific context of breaking up without actually breaking up.
It’s likely that the spread of this particular sense of ghosting is linked to the increasing use of online dating apps. Though online dating has been around for over twenty years, Tinder entered the scene in late 2012, and became ubiquitous in 2013. Around that time the term ghosting really took off in mainstream media. By 2014 and 2015 major publications like New York Times, Huffington Post, and the Independent were writing about it.
This sense of ghosting might find its roots in the idiom get ghost, meaning “to leave immediately; to disappear,” which gained popularity in ‘90s hip-hop. The Right Rhymes shows examples of this expression referring to sexual encounters from as early as 1994. However, these lyrics seem to be specifically about one-night stands. Going even further back, the Oxford English Dictionary lists the phrases to ghost it and to ghost away meaning “to steal away like a ghost,” as dating from the 1800s. In this update, Dictionary.com also added a related sense of ghosting: “the act of leaving a social event or engagement suddenly without saying goodbye.”
These links seem viable, but the exact origins of the “ending a relationship” sense of ghosting remain unknown. This all adds to the mystery of the term, which any victim of ghosting can agree is appropriate.
Jane Solomon is a lexicographer based in Oakland, CA. She spends her days writing definitions and working on various projects for Dictionary.com. In the past, she’s worked with other dictionary publishers including Cambridge, HarperCollins, Oxford, and Scholastic, and she was a coauthor of “Among the New Words,” a quarterly article in the journal American Speech. She is also part of the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee, the group that decides what new emoji pop up on our devices. Jane blogs at Lexical Items, and she is the author of the children’s book The Dictionary of Difficult Words.