October 17, 2013

Case File #013.10.17: GHASTLY

Although ghastly means “intensely unpleasant, horrible, or terrifying” and is even occasionally used to mean “pale, pallid, or otherwise resembling a ghost,” it has no palpable etymological relationship to the word ghost. The adjective is actually a descendant of the Old English verb gæstan, which meant “to frighten or torment,” and when it first came into use at the end of the thirteenth century, it was spelled gastlich or sometimes gostlich. The form evolved to gastli within a scant quarter of a century or so, but the current ghastly didn't show up until 1590—its first published appearance was in Edmund Spenser's epic poem The Faerie Queene—which was also around the time the word's adverbial senses (“in a macabre, gruesome, or terrifying manner” and “with a deathlike quality”) came into use.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

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