Millennials and gen Zers are “Ghosting” dates. But where did the word come from?

How did "spirit of a dead person" come to mean "unceremoniously dumping someone"?
November 3, 2022

Christmas creep is when Christmas music, decorations and sales come earlier and earlier each year. I am already thinking about the ghosts from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, a book many reread in the winter months.

It was written in 1843, at the same time as the invention of Christmas as we know it with cards, decorations, trees and crackers. The miserly Scrooge is visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, present and yet to come, whose offer of redemption leads him to a new life of goodwill and generosity, typical of what is known as “the Christmas spirit”—another 19th-century creation.

From the 12th-century Ormulum to Shakespeare to the latest winner of the Booker prize, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka, ghosts have been familiar characters in literature. Some return with malevolence, but others come to right wrongs, as Maali Almeida does—he has just seven moons to lead his loved ones to the truth.

But ask a millennial or anyone from gen Z, and ghosting will have nothing to do with the goodwill of the spirits of the dead. For them, ghosting is a way of ending a relationship without explanation, or even just to avoid some awkwardness. The “ghost” cuts off all digital communication with the “ghostee” without warning. Got a difficult conversation you’re avoiding? Embarrassed by what happened on a date? Just ghost them! Stop responding to texts, phone calls, emails or social media posts. Block their number. Disappear quickly or fade out of their life mysteriously. Or maybe soft ghosting is more your style, when you like a post but do not respond or continue the conversation fully, as a way of slowly distancing yourself. This is a bit different from grayrocking, which is deliberately making yourself appear boring by sending one-word, short responses so that the person eventually gets the hint and leaves you alone.

How did ghost, the spirit of a dead person, turn into a verb for unceremoniously dumping someone? As with a lot of lexical innovation, it began in African-American English. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, expressions such as “let’s ghost!” or “get ghost!” could be heard in black communities to mean “let’s get out of here!”. Leaving a party without saying goodbye was often the context for this sense of ghosting, similar to the so-called Irish or French exit, but with the advent of the internet and social media it soon evolved to mean, “to leave a relationship by ceasing all communication without warning”.