Have you ever been ghosted? Or perhaps you’ve been the ghoster? If you haven’t come across these terms before, you might think these questions have something to do with the paranormal, especially given that the publication of this post coincides with Halloween, the evening when children in the US, Canada and Britain often dress up as ghosts, witches and other spooky characters and go trick or treating. Ghosting in this sense doesn’t in fact relate literally to apparitions and spirits, although that’s not to say that being ghosted won’t leave you haunted by the emotional after-effects. The act of ghosting involves abruptly withdrawing from all communication with a partner or friend, and thereby ending the relationship – with the ghoster in this scenario being the person who purposely ‘disappears’.
As shown in these examples, a ghoster can ghost a relationship as well as a person:
Not only did she leave him, she straight up ghosted him.
… if your bestie has just ghosted you for someone, make sure to tell them, honestly, about your feelings.
I ghosted my last relationship.
Evidence from our corpus (= the language database that we use to track how words are used) reveals that the preposition on is sometimes added in, turning the expression into a phrasal verb:
He complained that girls were ghosting on him and standing him up.
You might be surprised to learn that before this meaning of ghost materialized, the word already had two verb senses. Ghosting a book or written piece means ghostwriting the work (or writing it for someone who then publishes it as their own):
He ghosted the autobiography of a famous pre-war footballer…
In its intransitive form, the verb ghost can also mean to move from one place to another without making a sound:
They ghosted up the smooth waters of the river.
The most recent use of ghost probably derives its meaning from the fact that the ghoster takes on the ghost-like quality of being present yet unreachable. Ghost Mode, a feature on Snapchat, also plays on this idea. Enabling this mode prevents other users from being able to see your location, which in a sense makes you ‘invisible’.
Of course, as I’m sure anyone over the age of twenty will confirm, the ghosting phenomenon existed long before we started using this word to describe it. However, maybe it’s no coincidence that ghosting has become a hot topic in this digital era, when many daters are using online dating apps and websites that not only make it easier to meet potential mates but perhaps also make it easier to vanish into the ether when it doesn’t work out.
Ghosting is by no means the only word with creepy connotations to come into use with the rise of online and app dating. Take, for example, the verb haunt. As you may already know, when a ghost is said to be haunting someone, the ghost is seen or heard regularly by that person:
He said he would come back to haunt her.
Increasingly though, the verb haunt is being used in the context of relationships. If a ghoster from your romantic past is haunting you, that person has recently reappeared in your life (or has metaphorically ‘come back to haunt you’) via some indirect form of interaction, such as liking a post on one of your social media feeds. This practice is also known as zombieing, drawing a semi-humorous comparison between the ghoster and a zombie – in this sense, a fictional creature often depicted as having come back from the dead.
As the world of dating continues to evolve at a somewhat frightening pace, you might well find that these aren’t the only new terms to add to your dating vocabulary list.
Leonie Hey is a Senior Editor in OUP’s ELT Dictionaries department. She taught English in Sardinia and worked as a language teacher in the UK before joining OUP in 2011.
This article was first published on 31 October 2017 on the Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries blog.