Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Episode 196: Give Up the Ghost


This week Shauna and Dan get spooky with Give Up the Ghost. This one is fascinating as it has remained mostly unchanged for 900+ years, though it's early usage wasn't meant to be figurative. Bonus: Generational Labels, Zany cartoon characters, and Shakespeare's rhyming schemes. #BunnyTrails

 Click to read the shownotes


Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast
Episode 196: Give Up the Ghost
Record Date: June 18, 2023
Air Date: June 21, 2023


Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase.

I’m Shauna Harrison

And I’m Dan Pugh

Each week we take an idiom or other turn of phrase and try to tell the story from its entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

Opening Hook
Have you ever been using something and it just stopped working? I’ve had that happen before to lawnmowers, power tools, and even cars. They were plugging right along, and then all of a sudden, they gave up the ghost.


According to the Oxford English Dictionary, to give up the ghost means

Of a person or animal: to die; figurative. Of a thing: to end, to stop working, to fall down, etc
End Quote

It comes to English from similar phrases in other Germanic languages (middle low and middle high German). There are also equivalent variants in middle dutch, translated as to give one’s ghost, to forsake the ghost, and to give the ghost to God.

When we think of a ghost in popular culture, it is usually a spirit haunting a location. And that is basically what it has meant since the days of Old English.

From the Oxford English Dictionary’s entry on Ghost
An animating or vital principle; a person's spirit or soul.
End Quote

And in our context,
The animating or vital principle in humans and animals; that which gives life to the body, in contrast to its purely material being; the life force, the breath of life. Now rare except in expressions relating to death, esp. to give up the ghost.
End Quote

So in this context, the phrase as it was originally used wasn’t necessarily idiomatic. It was more literal. Ghost meant your soul. It was the thing that made you… you. And to give up your soul was to die. And that was kind of a literal thing. But it is easy for us now to see how this became idiomatic, as we generally reserve the word ghost for the spirit left over after the material body has fallen away. And we often see ghosts portrayed as almost separate entities from the person they once were.

OE (between 900 and 1150)
Here is an example from Old English, translated with the help of way too many google searches. The writing is not dated, but comes to us from Julius and is included in the Oxford English Dictionary’s citations.

ond God wuldriende heo ageaf hire gast
End Quote

Here is an early example from about 1175, in Orm’s The Ormulum, from Robert William Burchfield’s transcript.

He ȝaff hiss fule gast To farenn inn till helle.
End Quote

I’ve seen several online fan page sites talk about this coming from the King James Bible, but that simply isn’t true. The Oxford English Dictionary has several citations of its use prior to the King James Bible being written, which was in roughly 1611. In fact, it’s not even the first version of the Christian Bible to use the phrase, as it appears in the Wycliffe version which was written around 1395. The quote I’m going to read comes from a version written around 1425 but that still predates the King James version by almost 200 years.

From the Book of Matthew:
Jhesus eftsoone criede with a greet voyce, and ȝaf vp the goost
End Quote

This is a good example of it being used literally, with Jesus giving up his soul to death.

Here is an early example of the phrase being used figuratively to refer to something ending. This is from a translation of Restorer of French Estate (vii. 158) written in 1589.

Whatsoeuer good affection or minde they had, it gaue vp the ghost at least when this goodly enterprise of the league began.
End Quote

Here we find our phrase in the title of a work by Francis Howgill. According to the Google Books page, Mr. Howgill was a prominent early member of the Religious Society of Friends in England. You may know them better by a common name, Quakers. Here is the title of his 1660 work, published by Thomas Simmons at the sign of the Bull and Mouth near Aldersgate:

One Warning More Unto England Before She Give Up the Ghost, and be Buried in the Pit of Darkness. To Awaken the Inhabitants Thereof Out of Their Deep Sleep, to See Themselves what Misery is Coming Upon Them Through Their Degeneration and Horrible Ingratitude, that the People Therein May be Left Without Excuse in the Day of the Lord. By Him that Pities Thee in this Languishing State
End Quote

Seems like a fun guy at parties.

This next one comes to us from our favorite meme-worthy lexicographer, Samuel Johnson in his 1755 work, A Dictionary of Modern English, second edition. This is from the third entry for Ghost:

To give up the Ghost. To die; to yield up the spirit into the hands of God. End Quote

By way of an example, Johnson includes a quote from Shakespeare's ~1599 work, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar.

Their shadows seem
a canopy most fatal
under which
our army
lies ready
to give up the ghost.

Here’s an example from 1875 from Oliver Spencer Halstead’s work, The Book Called Job, From the Hebrew.

Ghosts are found in the Rheims Romish version of the New Testament, published at Rheims, AD 1582, some twenty-seven years before the Douay was published, and some thirty years before the E.V. was published. The Douay repudiated the ghosts of the Rheims; but James’ ecclesiastics seem to have thought that as the Rheims has them in the New Testament they might as well have them in the Old, so far as relates to man and woman. The Douay uniformly evades the true meaning of the Hebrew verb ghuo - to breathe out - exspire - deliver the breath, give up the ghost.
End Quote

This whole passage is fascinating and we’ll explore it a little more in the behind the scenes, available to all Patrons at

Here’s an example from a joke piece in the newspaper titled A Happy Couple. This is out of the New York Tribune, 15 Nov 1896.

Mr. Snarle (savagely): I’ve given up drinking, I’ve give up smoking and I’ve give up the club - (sarcastically) - is there anything else you would like me to give up?
Mrs. Snarle (promptly) Yes, I should like you to give up the ghost.
End Quote

Ah, boomer humor. Wait, this is way before boomers. Ah, missionary humor.

That’s right, according to, those born between 1860 and 1882 as would be those reading and writing in an 1896 newspaper, are known as the Missionary generation.

This chart goes all the way back to 1433 with the Arthurian generation.

I’ve always found the generational labels to be misguided at best and more often harmful than helpful. And I have no way of knowing if this is a trustworthy site for the use of those labels. It seems a bit clickbaity to create generational labels back to a pre-Columbian age.

But I would point everyone to an article from the Pew Research Center called, 5 things to keep in mind when you hear about Gen Z, Millennials, Boomers and other generations. This was written 22 May 2023 by the Pew Research President, Michale Dimock.

Here are the 5 primary points.

  1. Generational categories are not scientifically defined.
  2. Generational labels can lead to stereotypes and oversimplification.
  3. Discussions about generation often focus on differences instead of similarities.
  4. Conventional views of generations can carry an upper-class bias.
  5. People change over time.

The article wraps up with this note:

If you’ve read this far, your suspicions about generational labels may have hardened. That’s OK. Our recommendation is for readers to bring a healthy dose of skepticism to the generational discussions they see. Readers should also hold media and research organizations that focus on generations – including Pew Research Center – to a high standard.

Despite these cautions, we still believe generational thinking can help us understand how societies change over time. The eras in which we come of age can leave a signature of common experiences and perspectives. Events such as terrorist attacks, wars, recessions and pandemics can shape the opportunities and mindsets of those most affected by them.

Similarly, historical advances like desegregation, effective birth control, the invention of the internet and the arrival of artificial intelligence can fundamentally change how people live their lives, and the youngest generations are often in the vanguard. At the same time, some events can affect people across generations, moving everyone in one direction or another.

It’s wise to think of terms like Gen Z, Millennial, Gen X and Baby Boomer as general reference points instead of scientific facts. At Pew Research Center, we’ll continue to use these and other labels to help our readers navigate a changing world. But we’ll do so sparingly – and only when the data supports the use of the generational lens.
End Quote

Okay,let’s get off that bunny trail and get back to where we were. To give up the ghost has been around since the beginnings of English. Which is really cool that it has lasted so long and is basically still in use today as it was some 900+ years ago.

Before we head to our modern uses, I do want to make note of an english variant I found in the Oxford English Dictionary, to gasp up the ghost, which means:

to give up the ghost; to die.
End Quote

Here is are two early examples of this in use, both found through the Oxford English Dictionary’s citations.

Raphael Holinshed · The firste (laste) volume of the Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande · 1st edition, 1577 (2 vols.).

They left them goaring in their bloude..and gasping vp their flitting goastes.
End Quote

Guillaume de Saluste Du Bartas · Bartas his deuine weekes and workes translated and dedicated to the Kings most excellent Maiestie By Iosuah Syluester (transl. Joshua Sylvester) · 1st edition, 1605 (1 vol.).

Som groaning Pagan may gasp out his ghost.
End Quote

The Oxford English Dictionary notes this version is now obsolete.

Let’s move onto some more modern takes on this phrase, but first a quick word of thanks to our sponsors.

A Quick Thank You
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Modern Uses

Giving Up the Ghost is a 1998 made for TV movie directed by Claudia Weill and starring Marg Helgenberger and Alan Rosenberg. Here is the synopsis from Turner Classic Movies:

A lawyer haunted by the sudden death of her husband, makes contact with his ghost. She becomes torn between living without him or ending it all to spend eternity with him.
End Quote

There are dozens of books with a play on our phrase, but I narrowed it down to just a few that we’ll note here. The first is Giving Up the Ghost a memoir by Hilary Mantel and published in 2004 by Henry Holt and Company. Here’s a synopsis from the publisher:

In postwar rural England, Hilary Mantel is a fierce, self-possessed child, schooling herself in "chivalry, horsemanship, and swordplay" and convinced that she will become a boy at age four. Catholic school comes as a rude distraction from her rich inner life. At home, where fathers and stepfathers come and go at strange, overlapping intervals, the keeping of secrets becomes a way of life. Her late teens bring her to law school in London and then to Sheffield; a lover and then a husband. She acquires a persistent pain-which also shifts and travels-that over the next decade will subject her to destructive drugs, patronizing psychiatry, and, finally, at age twenty-seven, to an ineffective and irrevocable surgery. There will be no children; instead she has "a ghost of possibility, a paper baby, a person who slipped between the lines." Hormone treatments alter her body beyond recognition. And in the middle of it all, she begins one novel, and then another.

Hilary Mantel was born to write about the paradoxes that shimmer at the edges of our perception. Dazzling, wry, and visceral, Giving Up the Ghost is a deeply compelling book that will bring new converts to Mantel's dark genius.
End Quote

Give Up the Ghost is a song by Radiohead off their 2011 album, The King of Limbs. The words are a rhythmic repetition of “In your arms, don’t hurt me” with just a few other lines sprinkled in. I saw an interpretation of the song on from user matchboxmatt

This song is the pinnacle of the message in this album.

The entire span of the album, each song has a repeating rhythmic/harmonic figure that is consistent throughout the song, but evolves over time. This idea of repetition is "haunting" in itself, and relates to the idea of experiences and thoughts. What is "lost and sold" are the pieces of ourselves we have forgotten or chosen to forget, the "pitiful" our regrets, and the "impossible" our personal limits that define us.

Even though we dislike characteristics or events in our lives, everything that happens to us becomes apart of us, and as we evaluate ourselves and reflect on our lives, we realize that the things we want to expel or to give up make us who we are. How then can we possibly "give up the ghost", or move on from these thoughts and experiences we'd rather forget, when they become apart of who we are?

It is the ultimate irony and truth: we dwell on things and "have our fill" in order to move on, and although we are the same person we were when we endured these events, we have evolved through our experiences and reflections.
End Quote

We’ll link to the official music video on the show notes at, or you can find it on our Patreon.

Give Up the Ghost is a song by Lauren Jenkins off her 2019 album No Saint. It’s about a woman who loves a man that hasn’t moved on from a previous love.

'Cause I know I could make you happy
Baby, if you only let me
But two of us is one too many
Open the door and set her free
Give up the ghost, hold on to me
End Quote

Give Up the Ghost is a movie directed by Chris Mullins and starring Trenton McClain Boyd, Jet Jandreau, and Maxwell Rinehart. It came out in 2021. Here is the quick synopsis from Amazon:

Give Up The Ghost follows a man on his death bed as he relives memories of a past relationship and struggles with his own life choices. As he moves through the consequences of his life choices, he deals with regret and the possibilities of what could've been. All while coming to terms with his future fate.
End Quote

Movie Trailer

Give Up the Ghost is a 2021 novel by Angie Fox. It is book 11 in The Southern Ghost Hunter Mysteries. Here is her synopsis:

Some secrets should stay buried.

Ghost hunter Verity Long is no stranger to scandal. In fact, it seems to follow her around like her pet skunk, Lucy. But Verity is as shocked as anybody when a town relic discovered in a time capsule unleashes a torrent of secrets that lead to murder.

Trouble is, the only residents in Sugarland who know the truth behind the scandal also happen to be very dead themselves. With a killer on the loose and a town in crisis, Verity braves a side of Sugarland she's never seen before. From a booby-trapped haunted mansion to a run-in with the spirit of Sugarland's most notorious blackmailer who may hold the key to setting mob ghost Frankie free...for a price.

But when a live killer gets an inside track on Verity's investigation, will she live long enough to give up the ghost?
End Quote

Her bio on Google books is great. Here is a snippet from it:

New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Angie Fox writes sweet, fun, action-packed mysteries. Her characters are clever and fearless, but in real life, Angie is afraid of basements, bees, and going up stairs when it is dark behind her. Let’s face it. Angie wouldn’t last five minutes in one of her books.
End Quote

Wrap Up
I don’t mind ‘give up the ghost’ to refer to inanimate objects when they stop working. That seems perfectly reasonable. But I don’t especially love phrases meant to speak of a person as dead or dying. I feel somewhat uncomfortable with that type of wording in many cases. In that context I avoid allusion to an afterlife with phrases like passed away or passed on and give up the ghost. But I also find other phrases to be a bit crass, like worm food, circling the drain, or dead as a doorknob. I prefer simply to say someone has died. And if I’m going to use those other sayings, I stick to using them to refer to things rather than people.

That’s about all we have for today. If you have any thoughts on the show, or pop culture references we should have included, reach out to us at, or comment on our website

It’s poll time!

Recently we asked our Patrons, which zany cartoon character would you most be willing to spend a day with?

This was a mix of results, with Bugs Bunny of Merry Melodies and Looney Tunes and Michelangelo of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles tying for the top spot. Rounding out the top 5 are Yakko, Wakko, and Dot from the Animaniacs, Pink Panther from The Pink Panther Show, and Orko from He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.

Mary added her thoughts:

It was difficult. I started to choose Bugs because he goes everywhere. He conducts an orchestra. He runs around in the woods. He travels. He is unafraid and always has something to say. Ultimately, I had to go with Michelangelo because he’s got so much heart and can do martial arts. Way cool.
End Quote

Like Mary, I struggled with this one. I ultimately went with Bugs Bunny, just because he ends up all over the place doing all kinds of things. I'm a huge TNMT fan, with Donatello being my favorite. And I love pizza. But I don't want to hang out the sewers. Orko would be cool, but I'm afraid Eternia is a bit too unknown for me. But I loved Yakko, Wakko, and Dot, so they got consideration because they are whimsical and do all kinds of fun stuff. Pink Panther was less whimsical, but still did some cool stuff. And he was always running from the law, which seemed exciting to childhood me.

Pat had a few similar thoughts,

I totally love TNMT! and so must be true to Michelangelo et al. There was a time when Pink Panther would have prevailed; however, I am much younger now.
End Quote

I love that as Pat continues in life, she sees the things she really loves and seems to get younger with every passing year. That’s something I want to strive for, too.


I gotta be honest. I’m an Orko fan. I feel like we would get each other and he’d be super fun to spend the day with. It would have to be on his day off of work… because I’m not up for all the evil-doing Skeletor has planned. I’m thinking more of a fun day adventuring and occasionally shouting… “By the Power of Grayskull!” It’d be awesome!

As a reminder, our silly polls mean absolutely nothing and are not scientifically valid. But Patrons of all levels get to take part. Head over to to take this week’s poll!


Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. Until then remember,

Words belong to their users.

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