Understanding the Idiom: "give up the ghost" - Meaning, Origins, and Usage

Idiom language: English
Etymology: Literally, to release one's spirit or soul from the body at death. From Middle English "gaf up þe gost", "ʒave up þe gost", from Old English phrases as "hēo āġeaf hire gāst" (literally, "she gave up her ghost [spirit]"), "þæt iċ gāst mīnne āġifan mōte" (literally, "that I must give up my ghost [spirit]"). Compare German den Geist aufgeben and Dutch de geest geven.Perhaps most notable and survived in modern English for being used in traditional translation during the death of Jesus during His crucifixion:
The Holy Bible, […] (King James Version), London: […] Robert Barker, […], 1611, →OCLC, Matthew 27:50: “¶ Iesus, when hee had cried againe with a loud voice, yeelded vp the ghost.”

The idiom “give up the ghost” is a common expression used in English language to describe the moment when something stops working or ceases to exist. It is often used to refer to machines, vehicles, or electronic devices that have stopped functioning properly. However, it can also be used metaphorically to describe people who have passed away or situations that have come to an end.

This idiom has been in use for many years and has its roots in ancient Greek mythology. According to legend, when someone died their soul would leave their body and become a ghost. The phrase “give up the ghost” was first recorded in English literature in 1611 and has since become a popular expression.

Understanding this idiom is important because it is commonly used in everyday conversation and writing. By knowing what it means, you can better understand what someone is trying to communicate when they use this phrase. In addition, using idioms correctly can help you sound more fluent and natural when speaking English.

Origins and Historical Context of the Idiom “give up the ghost”

The phrase “give up the ghost” is a well-known idiom that has been used for centuries. It is often used to describe situations where something or someone has stopped working or functioning properly, or when they have died. The origins of this idiom can be traced back to ancient times, where it was commonly used in religious contexts.

In many religions, it was believed that when a person died, their soul would leave their body and ascend to heaven. This process was often referred to as “giving up the ghost”. Over time, this phrase became more widely used and began to be applied to other situations as well.

During medieval times, it was common for people to believe that ghosts were real and could haunt places where they had lived or died. In some cases, people believed that ghosts could possess objects or even living beings. This belief likely contributed to the development of the phrase “give up the ghost”, which may have originally been used in reference to haunted objects or possessions.

As time went on, the meaning of this idiom evolved further and came to be associated with any situation where something had stopped working or functioning properly. Today, it remains a popular expression that is frequently used in everyday conversation.

Usage and Variations of the Idiom “give up the ghost”

When it comes to idioms, there are often variations in their usage depending on the context or location. The same can be said for the idiom “give up the ghost”. While its general meaning is widely understood, there are certain nuances that may vary from one situation to another.

One common variation of this idiom is “to give up one’s spirit”. This phrase is often used in religious contexts when referring to someone passing away. It implies a peaceful and natural transition from life to death.

Another variation is “to breathe one’s last breath”. This emphasizes the finality of death and suggests that once someone has given up their last breath, they have truly passed away.

In some cases, this idiom can also be used metaphorically. For example, if a machine or piece of equipment stops working suddenly and permanently, it could be said to have “given up the ghost”.

Synonyms, Antonyms, and Cultural Insights for the Idiom “give up the ghost”


There are several synonyms that can be used in place of “give up the ghost”. One common alternative is “kick the bucket”, which is often used to refer to someone passing away. Another synonym is “bite the dust”, which can be used to describe a failure or defeat. Additionally, one could use phrases such as “throw in the towel” or “call it quits” when giving up on a task or endeavor.


While there are many synonyms for this idiom, there are not many direct antonyms. However, one could use phrases such as “keep going” or “persevere” when they want to continue with a task despite difficulties or setbacks.

Cultural Insights:

The origins of this idiom date back centuries ago when people believed that ghosts were responsible for keeping things alive. When something stopped working properly, it was said that the ghost had left it. Today, this phrase is still commonly used in everyday conversation and writing across English-speaking cultures.

In some cultures, using idioms like these may come across as insensitive if they are related to death. It’s important to understand cultural nuances before using idioms so as not to offend anyone unintentionally.

Practical Exercises for the Idiom “give up the ghost”

If you want to master the idiom “give up the ghost”, it’s important to practice using it in different contexts. Here are some practical exercises that will help you improve your understanding and usage of this common expression.

Exercise 1: Write a Story

Write a short story that includes the phrase “give up the ghost”. Try to use it in a way that makes sense within the context of your story. This exercise will help you think creatively about how to incorporate idioms into your writing.

Exercise 2: Conversation Practice

Find a partner and practice having conversations where you use the idiom “give up the ghost” naturally. You can come up with different scenarios, such as discussing a broken-down car or an old electronic device that no longer works. This exercise will help you feel more comfortable using idioms in everyday conversation.

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Using the Idiom “give up the ghost”

When using idioms in conversation or writing, it’s important to use them correctly to avoid confusion and misunderstandings. The idiom “give up the ghost” is no exception. Here are some common mistakes to avoid when using this idiom:

Mistake #1: Misusing the tense

The correct tense for this idiom is past tense – “gave up the ghost”. Using present tense such as “gives up the ghost” can cause confusion and make your sentence sound awkward.

Mistake #2: Taking it too literally

This idiom means that something has stopped working or functioning properly, not that a literal ghost has given up. It’s important not to take idioms too literally, as they often have figurative meanings.

  • Incorrect usage: My car gave up the ghost on my way home from work today. I had to call a tow truck.
  • Correct usage: After years of faithful service, my old laptop finally gave up the ghost last night.

Avoiding these common mistakes will help you use this idiom confidently and accurately in your conversations and writing!

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