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Word of the day: geest (soul, mind, spirit, ghost )

After yesterday’s LICHAAM (body) it is time to look into its twin word GEEST (mind, soul, spirit, ghost). Inseparable entities: matter and mind. Body and soul! The title of the marvellous jazz-standard made famous by Billy Holiday and Frank Sinatra, and so beautifully performed by Tony Bennett and Amy Winehouse (sadly, her last recorded song): ‘My life a wreck you’re making / You know I’m yours / I’m yours for just the taking / I would gladly surrender / myself to you / body and soul.’


Like LICHAAM GEEST is a Germanic noun going back to the early middle ages. Old English knows it as ‘gāst’. Apparently its original meaning was ‘fright’ or ‘terror’. Old English ‘gæstan’ meant ‘to frighten’.

Suppose you were to meet an immaterial being on your chilly way to the toilet in the midnight hour, what would your reaction be? Right. Fright! Your heart would stop beating. Anyone would be in shock at seeing a supernatural being. So no wonder, ‘ghost’ comes from ‘gāst’.

There must be a direct connection between ‘fright’, ‘ghost’ and ‘soul’, the three senses of ‘gāst’. Dutch has kept ‘apparition’ and ‘soul’ in the same word GEEST to this day. But what came first: the fright, the soul or the apparition? This is a mystery. Etymologists don’t know, but they assume that (Holy) Ghost, (HEILIGE) GEEST, is a monk’s attempt to translate the Latin word ‘Spiritus’, the volatile essence of a solid.

The divine GEEST (Holy Ghost) as a concept and word must have come before the human GEEST (everlasting ‘soul’ and later profane ‘mind’). As the Bible will tell you: an encounter with the almighty Ghost was a fleeting, yet frightening experience. Just consider Jacob’s painful body after having wrestled with the GEEST until the breaking of day and Moses’ startled face when the Geest from the midst of a burning bush spoke to him, saying: ‘Here I am!’. In this sense GEEST surely is no laughing matter.