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Updated: Nov 10, 2023

Where did the H in ghost come from? The Literacy hill

Do you have students who have 'given up the ghost' with spelling because they just don't seem to understand? Do you feel like you have 'given up the ghost' because all those silent letters sit there holding their secrets?

Here is the ghastly tale of H, who sits neatly next

to G in the word ghost.

We don't have so many words that start GH. So where did the H come from because it wasn't around in Anglo-Saxon England? The word we now know as ghost was spelled gast and had the long sound ahhhhh, so it sounded more like gahhst. It also had a slightly different meaning to the definition we now use — A scary spirit of a person who has died, possibly disembodied and haunting people out of their homes. In Old English, the meaning was slightly different and less scary. The original meaning of spirit or soul still survives today when we think of 'the Holy Ghost'.

The H was inserted by the Flemish printers of the day.

William Caxton set up the printing press in England. Today, we would think of Caxton as an entrepreneur. He was a merchant, diplomat and writer. After several years in Bruges and Cologne, he set up shop in London and brought the Flemish typesetters with him because they had the experience he needed. When these typesetters came across a word familiar or similar to their own, they tended to use their own spelling. The Old English word gast looked similar to the Flemish word gheest, so the H has been there ever since. Other ghostly words appeared too. We also have ghastly, and aghast in the same family and ghoul appeared (without H) in the 1700s from the Arabic word goul or goule. The H was added later, and this adds another spooky word to the gh group.

The typesetters set the spelling of words, and gh was added to lots of /g/ words — gherle (girl), ghoos (goose), ghoot (goat) but the spellings didn't last.

We often see GH in other words, English has borrowed.

The words spaghetti and ghetto both come from Italian. Gherkin is also a borrowed word, but it didn't have H when borrowed from Dutch even though the Dutch had GH words, but the H later appeared. We often add these words to a keyword sentence in the clinic to help with decoding and spelling practice. Here is the one we made up last week. In the ghetto, ghastly ghosts and ghouls eat spaghetti and gherkins.

Spelling Resources the Literacy hill
Where did the H in Ghost Come From? The :Literacy Hill

To see the books I use most to up my spelling game. Go here. They are all a great read and will positively impact your teaching.


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