From VOA Learning English, this is Words and Their Stories! On this program, we talk about origins and usage of common expressions in American English.
Today we explore the word “spirit.” Spirit is one of those words that has many different definitions. We will first talk about a simple definition with an interesting word origin.
Spirits are strong alcoholic drinks, such as vodka, gin, tequila and rum. Language experts say this expression first appeared in Europe hundreds of years ago. Back then, people explained the effects of strong alcohol as the work of an evil spirit — the devil.
Speaking of evil spirits, there are more complicated definitions of the word “spirit” that involve religion and the after-life.
Spirit is part of a human that is not part of the physical body. Our spirit is connected to our thoughts and emotions. Meriam Webster’s online dictionary defines it as “the force within a person that is believed to give the body life, energy, and power.”
So, religious or spiritual people may believe that the spirit remains alive after death. In this way, “spirit” is similar to the word “ghost.”
However, in a non-religious way, the human “spirit” is simply a non-physical energy in each person that makes us who we are. Again, Meriam Webster’s online dictionary calls it the “inner quality or nature of a person.” So, even people who don’t believe in life-after-death, can believe in this type of spirit.
Besides in religious ceremonies, how do we use this type of spirit in conversation?
Well, if you can’t physically be somewhere, you can still be there in spirit. Let’s say you have been invited to a friend’s birthday party, but are unable to go. You tell your friend, “I’m so sorry I’ll miss the party. But I’ll be there in spirit.” This means that while you cannot go, you will still be thinking of that person as they celebrate.
Spirit can also mean your outlook on life. So, if you are happy about life, you can say you are in high spirits. And if you’re not, you can say you are in low spirits.
If you are in low spirits, it’s important to do things to lift your spirit. For many people, listening to music, taking a long walk or hanging out with friends are greatspirit-lifters!
Sometimes, though, we simply don’t feel like doing something. So, we may use tricks to get into the spirit. If I must go to a social event but don’t want to, I may play music while I’m getting ready to get into the spirit. And if I finally agree to join an activity or do something that I don’t want to do, someone may say to me, “That’s the spirit!”
Now, the expression if the spirit moves you is a bit tricky. We use it in a situation where I say I will do something when I want to do it — not when others think I should. Basically, it’s up to me.
For example, let’s say another person invites you to a birthday party (because you’re a very popular person). The host asks you to bring a story about her and share it with everyone if the spirit moves you. She means that you can share a story if you really want to but you don’t have to. Maybe the spirit will never move you and you share nothing.
Spirit can also mean a feeling of belonging to a group, like a sports team or a school. If a student is active at school and sets a good example for others, we say they show great school spirit.
Another way to say this is with a French expression: esprit de corps. This means belonging to a group and having feelings of intense energy and loyalty for members of that group.
“Esprit de corps” is a fancy way of saying team spirit. “Team spirit” is much more common and you can use it in any situation, whether formal or informal, fancy or not fancy.
“Spirit” can also mean to do something with high energy levels. Here are two examples:
“He performed the piano piece with spirit.”
“She gave a spirited legal defense in the courtroom.”
There are two very common “spirit” expressions that describe people.
Free spirits think and act freely. They do not follow the usual rules of society. Free spirits do their own thing.
Free spirit or not, most people like being with kindred spirits. A kindred spirit is someone who understands and agrees with you on a very deep level. Kindred spirits share the same beliefs, dreams, goals and thoughts.
Now let’s hear some of these examples in a short story.
Veronica is a talented musician. She is also a free spirit. She has never owned a credit card, a car or a house. And she doesn’t have a steady job. She often travels around the world singing at festivals and teaching English on the side.
To save money, Veronica lives in a group house with other artists. She really likes living with such kindred spirits. They all understand that each artist needs time alone and time to practice their art.
However, artistic types can also be emotional – happy one minute, angry or sad the next. Veronica isn’t like that. She is usually in high spirits. And when her housemates are in low spirits, she does something to lift their spirits.
A guaranteed spirit-lifter is a party with good food, lively music and interesting conversation. If the spirit moves them, her housemates can join in the fun. And they always do! Even the grumpiest housemate, Felton, gets into the spirit and has fun by the end of the night! Sometimes he even plays the piano for people. That’s the spirit, Felton!
And that’s the end of this Words and Their Stories.
On VOA’s Learning English website, you can find many kindred spirits: other people who want to learn English.
I’m Anna Matteo.
“When I die and they lay me to rest
Gonna go to the place that’s the best
When I lay me down to die
Goin’ up to the spirit in the sky …”
How do you use the word “spirit” in your language? Let us know in the Comments Section.
Anna Matteo wrote this story for VOA Learning English. Caty Weaver and George Grow edited the story. The song at the end is “Spirit in the Sky,” sung by Norman Greenbaum.
Words in This Story
spiritual – adj. of or relating to a person’s spirit
ghost – n. the soul of a dead person thought of as living in an unseen world or as appearing to living people
fancy – adj. not plain or ordinary
on the side – phrase in addition to one’s regular job or as a subsidiary source of income
grumpy – adj. easily annoyed or angered : having a bad temper or complaining often