'Ghost Words' Still Haunt Our Language

Rob Kyff on

We throw our "suitcases" and other "luggage" into the "trunks" of our cars. But those "suitcases" probably don't contain suits. We've forgotten that "luggage" is a fancy word for something we have to "lug" and that cars once had actual trunks lashed to their rear bumpers.

As technology advances, language often lags. In fact, many commonly used terms are anachronistic "ghost words" whose original associations are now almost forgotten.

We stare at our car's dashboard without knowing that a dashboard is so named because it once kept street water from dashing onto passengers in wagons. We forget that our "fenders" are designed to fend off other cars and that our "tires" are so called because they "attire" the wheel. And when was the last time you used the "glove compartment" to hold gloves?

In fact, I need only look at the computer keyboard in front of me to see ghost words dancing. The key that makes capital letters, for instance, is labeled "shift" because on typewriters, the entire carriage shifted upward to make a capital letter. Likewise, the "return" key, now used not only to move the cursor to the left margin but also to indicate "OK, do it!" is so labeled because the roller on a typewriter physically returned to its original position on the left to begin a new line.

On computers, we move through a multipage document by "scrolling," just as ancient scribes unrolled long scrolls. Standard page patterns are called "templates," a word that goes back not only to the thin metal plates used in woodworking and metal fabrication but ultimately to the "temple," a device on a loom that keeps the cloth stretched during weaving.


In cyberspace, Bill Gates meets Johannes Gutenberg. When we create a page on a computer, for instance, we click on "paste" to fix text in place, just as old-fashioned printers used adhesive to paste in galleys. We click on "font" to select a typeface because the Old French "fondre" meant "to melt," and the first typesetters melted down metal to make type. And journalists call the captions under photos "cutlines" because, when traditional printers make a photographic negative of a page, they literally cut out spaces for the insertion of photos.

But my favorite ghost word of all is "cc." Even though we're several technological revolutions removed from carbon copies, we still use this abbreviation to indicate who's getting copies of an email, memo or letter. Talk about carbon dating!


Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Copyright 2020 Creators Syndicate Inc.



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