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The English word "spirit" comes from the Latin spiritus, meaning breath.


The English word "spirit" comes from the Latin spiritus, meaning "breath" (compare spiritus asper), but also "soul, courage, vigor", ultimately from a PIE root *(s)peis- ("to blow"). In the Vulgate, the Latin word translates Greek (πνευμα), pneuma (Hebrew (רוח) ruah), as opposed to anima, translating psykhē. The word was loaned into Middle English via Old French espirit in the 13th century.

The distinction between soul and spirit became current in Judeo-Christian terminology (e.g. Greek. psykhe vs. pneuma, Latin anima vs. spiritus, Hebrew ruach vs. neshama or nephesh; in Hebrew neshama from the root NSHM or breath.)

Metaphysical and metaphorical uses

The word is used in two related contexts, one metaphysical and the other metaphorical.

Its metaphysical context has attained a number of meanings:

  1. An incorporeal but ubiquitous, non-quantifiable, substance or energy present individually in all living things. Unlike the concept of human souls, which is believed to be eternal and preexisting, a spirit develops and grows as an integral aspect of the living being. This concept of the individual spirit is common among traditional peoples. It is therefore important to note the distinction between this concept of spirit and that of the pre-existing or eternal soul because belief in souls is specific and far less common, particularly in traditional societies.
  2. A demon, sprite, or especially ghost. A ghost is usually conceived as a wandering spirit from a being no longer living, having survived the death of the body yet maintaining the mind and consciousness.
  3. In religion and spirituality, the respiration of the human being has for obvious reasons been strongly linked with the very occurrence of life. A similar significance has been attributed to human blood. Spirit in this sense denotes that which separates a living body from a corpse and usually implies intelligence, consciousness and sentience.
  4. Spirits are often visualized as being interconnected to all others and The Spirit (singular capitalized) refers to the theories of a unified spirituality, universal conciousness and some concepts of Deity. All "spirits" connected, form a greater unity, the Spirit, which has both an identity separate from its elements plus a consciousness and intellect greater than its elements; an ultimate, unified, non-dual awareness or force of life combining or transcending all individual units of consciousness. The experience of such a connection can be a primary basis for spiritual belief. The term spirit has been used in this sense by at least Anthroposophy, Aurobindo, A Course In Miracles, Hegel, and Ken Wilber. In this use, the term is conceptually identical to Plotinus's "One" and Friedrich Schelling's "Absolute." Similarly, according to the pan(en)theistic aspect, Spirit is the essence that can manifest itself as mind/soul through any level in pantheistic hierarchy/holarchy, such as a mind/soul of a single cell (with very primitive, elemental consciousness), or a human or animal mind/soul (with consciousness on a level of organic synergy of an individual human/animal), or a (superior) mind/soul with synergetically extremely complex/sophisticated consciousness of whole galaxies involving all sub-levels, all emanating (since it is non-dimensional, or trans-dimensional) from the one Spirit.
  5. In Christian theology, the Spirit is also used to describe God, or aspects therof as in Holy Spirit, referring to a Triune God (Trinity): "The result of God reaching to man by the Father as the source, the Son as the course ("the Way"), and through the Spirit as the transmission."
  6. Also in theological terms, the individual human "spirit" (singular lowercase) is a deeply situated aspect of the soul subject to "spiritual" growth and change; the very seat of emotion and desire, and the transmitting organ by which human beings can contact God. It is a central concept of Pneumatology.
  7. In Christian Science, Spirit is one of the seven synonyms for God. These are: "Principle; Mind; Soul; Spirit; Life; Truth; Love" (Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures by [Mary Baker Eddy, p. 587).
  8. In Harmonism, spirit is a term reserved for those which collectively control and influence an individual from the realm of the mind.

The metaphorical use of the term likewise has several related meanings:

  1. The loyalty and feeling of inclusion in the social history or collective essence of an institution or group, such as in school spirit or esprit de corps
  2. As a synonym for 'vivacity' as in "She performed the piece with spirit." or "She put up a spirited defense."
  3. As a term for alcoholic beverages stemming from medieval superstitions that explained the effects of alcohol as demonic activity.

See soul and ghost for related discussions.

Related Concepts in Other Languages

Similar concepts in other languages include Greek Pneuma and Sanskrit akasha. In some languages, the word for spirit is often closely related, if not synonymous to mind. Examples include the German, 'Geist' (related to the English word ghost) or the French, 'l'espirit'. In the Bible, the word "ruach" (רוח; "wind") is most commonly translated as the spirit, whose essence is divine. Alternately the word nephesh is commonly used. Nephesh, as referred to by Kabbalists, is one of the three parts of the human soul, where "nephesh" (animal) refers to the physical being and its animal instincts. Similarly, both the Danish and the Chinese language uses the term "breath" to refer to the spirit.

See also