People are now “ghosting” at work, so we looked into the word’s long history

Still there?
Still there?
Image: Reuters/Thomas Peter
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Anyone who has lived through a recession or two—and will therefore never take for granted the availability of jobs—might be aghast to learn of a nascent trend in the labor market: People are “ghosting” employers, according to LinkedIn.

If you’re old enough to vividly remember the last recession, however, you might also need an interpreter for this one. To “ghost” means what again? And where did it come from?

When Harry ghosted Sally

Ghost, the verb, is millennial parlance for vanishing from a relationship without warning or explanation. It has been common practice in online dating for last two or three years, at least, and it typically refers to online conversations.

Imagine it’s a Thursday and two people are texting hourly, making brunch plans for the weekend, perhaps trading deeply felt emotions. Come Friday, however, if one half of the duo stops replying, they have probably ghosted, abandoning the other with a radio silence that is never broken.

My millennial colleagues tell me that ghosting after a few months of dating would be upsetting, but after one week, it’s no big deal. Just another flavor of the same fits-and-starts style communication that’s to be expected between family and friends. This one just doesn’t start again.

“No one wants to have an uncomfortable conversation where they basically are like, ‘I don’t like you, and here’s why, and I don’t feel like hanging out with you is worth my time,'” says Arielle Ray, a 26-year-old Quartz video journalist

It’s been hovering for a while

Peter Sokolowski, editor-at-large at the Merriam-Webster dictionary, where he has pored over words for 24 years, tells Quartz that although ghost, in the sense that we use it today, was introduced to the Merriam-Webster dictionary in 2017, it’s actually been around much longer.

His team of lexicographers found one of the first references to this “ghost” in a 14-year-old entry in the Urban dictionary, a crowdsourced site where users define popular slang. In 2004, someone who goes by the handle “Falken”offered: “Adjective describing someone who has left or in the process of leaving,” as in “OS turned Falken into a ghost,” and “I’m ghost.”

Such early appearances of ghosting, Sokolowski wrote on the Merriam-Webster blog, “make the electronic aspect clear—setting your IM status to invisible so you won’t be obliged to answer, refusing to answer or even read texts, letting calls go to voicemail.”

More recently, however, some editors at Merriam-Webster discovered an even older example in a newsgroup on Usenet, a chatroom room-style networked communications system that predates today’s web by a decade. In 1996, one member of a golf enthusiasts group wrote, “My instructor ‘ghosted’ me…should I lose the bum.”

Surprisingly, one of the first documented uses of “ghost” as a verb has been traced back centuries, to Shakespeare, who used “ghost” in the play Antony and Cleopatra. In his day, it meant “to haunt,” says Sokolowski, and Pompey tells his audience that “Brutus ghosted” Julius Caesar.

(As a side note, Sokolowski points out that texting, through which most of today’s ghosting’s happens, was also a verb that Shakespeare employed. The Oxford English Dictionary defines one use of “text” in Much Ado About Nothing as “to write.”)

Later, to ghost would come to mean to die, as in “to give up the ghost.” And before its most current iteration, it was shorthand for ghostwriting, and for leaving a party without saying goodbye.

Beware, professional ghosters

The modern ghosting’s appearance in a new context is an example of what lexicographers call “drift,” says Sokolowski.

“Where once it was companies ignoring job applicants or snubbing candidates after interviews, the world has flipped,” LinkedIn editor Chip Cutter wrote. “Candidates agree to job interviews and fail to show up, never saying more. Some accept jobs, only to not appear for the first day of work, no reason given, of course. Instead of formally quitting, enduring a potentially awkward conversation with a manager, some employees leave and never return.”

His opening anecdote tells of a West Coast recruiter who became obsessively worried about a software engineer that wasn’t answering any messages or calls, just as the recruiter was about to make an offer. Had this applicant been hurt in a car accident or fallen ill? No. She was just a young person in a job-seekers’ market (at least for her cohort) in 2018.

Still, it’s hard to imagine ghosting ever becoming as prevalent and unexceptional at the office as it is in the wilds of online dating. Surely employers and recruiters will have a long memory, stretching past this strong market cycle? Certainly job candidates— or their parents or mentors — will come to realize this?

If those doing the ghosting are aware enough to know that it’s poor form, life will eventually teach them a lesson about hubris. (One has to hope.)

Either way, its lexiconic persistence pleases Sokolowski, who calls it a “terrific” word.

“I don’t have much opportunity to use it.” he says. “My electronic communication usually involves people who answer.”