What does the word ‘spirit’ mean to an English person, particularly from a religious perspective?

    • Something that can possess people: The New Testament, Mark 9:25

And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.”

The New Testament was written in Greek, and the Greek word used for spirit was πνεῦμα (pneuma) meaning, in traditional Greek, a movement of air (breath, wind).

  • Liquor, i.e. alcoholic drinks: spirit in this sense goes back to when chemistry (known then as alchemy) was reaching European shores from the Middle East. The muslim scientists said that, during chemical reactions, a vapour was given off. The translation of this vapour was ‘spirit’ – The word for vapour at that time in the Arabic being (I believe) روح (ruḥ), usually translated as ‘soul’ . This word is linked to the word ريح (riḥ) meaning ‘wind’.
  • Going back to the Old Testament and Judaism we have two relevant words, nafash and ruah. These are obviously cognates to the arabic words نفس (nafs) and روح (ruḥ) – see more here and here.

In the English language the word ‘spirit’ derives from the Latin spirare, to blow. There are many other derivative meanings in English, here’s just a few:

  • Spiritual world
  • In good spirits
  • Spirited defence
  • Inspired, inspiration

Clearly, then, the English word spirit has a similar root (in terms of meaning) as has the Arabic word for soul i.e. روح (ruḥ). Allah says in the Qur’aan:

alHijr 15:29

فَإِذَا سَوَّيْتُهُ وَنَفَخْتُ فِيهِ مِن رُّوحِي فَقَعُوا لَهُ سَاجِدِينَ

translated as:

“When I have fashioned him (in due proportion) and breathed into him of My spirit, fall ye down in obeisance unto him.”

i.e. both spirit and the Arabic word for soul روح (ruḥ) have connotations of breath, wind.