The Origin Of The Phrase Give Up The Ghost

Have you ever heard someone use the phrase, "Give up the ghost?" Maybe you have, but there's also a good chance you haven't. It's not really a common idiom that arises in conversation anymore, but you may have seen it pop up in various works of literature from centuries past. It sounds creepy, doesn't it? Still, what does it mean when someone "gives up the ghost?" Are we referring to someone who is holding an actual apparition hostage? Are we demanding that they release the paranormal entity from forced captivity? Someone should really give an explanation already.

Well, the meaning of the phrase is quite simple and almost self-explanatory: to give up the ghost means to die, according to The Free Dictionary by Farlex. So in a sense, we are talking about releasing a ghost from captivity — our own ghost from the captivity of our own bodies — and death is the key to the prison. 

Where did the phrase originate?

Like so many other phrases that have been casually woven into common vernacular over centuries past, "give up the ghost" traces its origins all the way back to The Holy Bible. In the Book of Job (4:10), the exact dialogue reads, "Man dieth, and wasteth away: yea, man giveth up the ghost" (per The Free Dictionary by Farlex). The explanation is right there in the words leading up to the phrase — death. Man dies and wastes away, and his ghost is relinquished unto the ether. 

It appears again in Mark 15:37 when, after suffering immensely upon the cross, "Jesus cried with a loud voice, and gave up the ghost." According to The Grammarist, the widespread use of the phrase in common language likely started to proliferate sometime in the 1600s after The King James Bible was published and made available to the masses.

Modern usage of the phrase

If you're a fan of Radiohead, you might already recognize the phrase from one of their more popular songs in recent years. "Give Up the Ghost" appeared on the band's 2011 album "The King of Limbs." True to Radiohead form, the track seems to invoke something unnerving from within, yet somehow manages to comfort the listener at the same time. "Give Up the Ghost" is more or less the perfect song to give up the ghost to. 

Musicians seem to be rather keen on the phrase. "Give Up the Ghost" is also the title of Folk/Indie Rock singer Brandi Carlile's 2009 studio album. It's hard to argue that it doesn't make for a good song/record title, but songwriters alone certainly don't hold precedence over the timeless idiom. In 2004, author Hilary Mantel chose "Giving Up the Ghost: A Memoir" as the title for her own autobiography (via Goodreads).