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What Does "Give up the Ghost" Mean?

Malcolm Tatum
Updated: May 17, 2024

Give up the ghost is an English saying that is most commonly associated with ceasing to exist or function. The more common application of this idiom has to do with death, with the implication being that at the point of death the body gives up the spirit or ghost, which is then free to move on to another sphere or realm. A slightly different application of give up the ghost is utilized when an individual chooses to cease working on what is perceived as a lost cause, or chooses to cease activity on some task that has proven beyond his or her capabilities.

The origins of the idiom give up the ghost are sometimes traced back to the earlier versions of the Christian Bible. Versions as early as the 16th century included the use of the phrase in the Book of Acts of the Apostles, found in the New Testament of the Christian scriptures. In this particular text, Herod is struck down by an angel of the Lord, and is said to give up the ghost, or die.

In English-speaking countries, "give up the ghost" is only one of many colorful expressions used to describe the act of death. Such phrases as passing away, kicking the bucket, cashing in one’s chips, headed for a dirt nap, and buying the farm are only a few of the idioms and expressions that are used in the place of simply saying that an individual has died. Some of the colorful phrases used to describe dying are intended to imply that the spirit of the deceased is moving on to another realm of existence, while others that are considered less somber are sometimes used to either ease the sorrow that occurs when a loved one dies or perhaps even celebrate the death of an individual who is not particularly popular.

While often having to do with death, a broader application of this phrase has to do with simply giving up. For example, if an individual works hard to make a success of a business but is unable to make any profit with the operation, he or she may choose to giver up the ghost and shut down the enterprise. In like manner, the phrase can even refer to giving up on a romantic situations, such as a suitor giving up the ghost when it becomes obvious that the object of his or her affection will never return those romantic feelings.

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Malcolm Tatum
By Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing to become a full-time freelance writer. He has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including WiseGeek, and his work has also been featured in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and newspapers. When not writing, Malcolm enjoys collecting vinyl records, following minor league baseball, and cycling.
Discussion Comments
By anon1005749 — On Nov 11, 2021

Being German, I've come to notice, that this phrase does also exist in the English language and it immediately struck me as a literal translation from German to English. "Den Geist aufgeben" is a metaphor for dying in German, where "Geist" ist used for both a spook as well as for mind or some sort of an inner, aware energy, that ceases when a life ends.

I would imagine, that with the Protestant translation directly from Martin Luther´s Bible, this phrase got absorbed into English, where the similar word "ghost" is pretty much only used in a sense of a spook.

By RocketLanch8 — On May 09, 2014

I'm surprised this article didn't mention an earlier incident in the New Testament. While Jesus Christ was dying on the cross, He made several utterances, some to the crowd and some to God. One of His last utterances was "Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit". It was at that point His spirit, or Holy Ghost, left His body. I've always associated the idiom "giving up the ghost" with that passage in the Bible.

By mrwormy — On May 08, 2014

I've been known to say a machine that cannot be repaired has given up the ghost. Any time spent on trying to revive it would be wasted. I think a lot of other people understand the idea of an older device simply conking out from years of operation. When I go shopping at the computer store, I'll tell the clerk my old laptop gave up the ghost.

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing...
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