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I came across the word, “daylight ghost” in the following sentense of the fiction titled “The Lost Order” appearing in January 7 New Yorker magazine.

“I have not always – had not even long – been a daylight ghost, a layabout, a mal pensant, a vacancy, a housewife, a person foiled by the challenge of getting dressed and someone who considered eating less a valid primary goal. I hade been a fairly busy environmental lawer, an accidental expert of sorts in toxic-mold litigation.”

I can imagine that “daylight ghost” is the word to describe an introverted and passive woman from the following words, ‘layabout,’ 'mal pensant,’ ‘ a vacancy,’ ‘housewive.’ However, no dictionary at hand carries the word, “daylight ghost.”

I found two entries of this word in Google. One as the title of the fiction, ‘Daylight Ghost - A Memoir of War and Love’ by Janine di Giovanni, and the other as the same name title of a song of John Wesley Harding.

What does “daylight ghost” exactly mean in a word? Is it well-used English word, or did the auther of “The Lost Order” just pick up the word from such a title of books and songs?

In connection with the above quote, can I translate a ‘mal pensant’ simply as “wrong thinker”? Is there any other implications? Does this word pass as a day-to-day English word today?

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In answer to mal pensant: no, that's just French. In some English literary registers, a passing understanding of Western European languages is assumed. – Mark Beadles Jan 13 '13 at 2:20
It does my heart good to see you reading so extensively, Oishi-san, especially considering your choice of reading matter. The New Yorker epitomizes highbrow journalism. – Robusto Jan 13 '13 at 2:29
@Robusto And typography. – tchrist Jan 13 '13 at 2:30
I certainly love every one of Yoichi's questions - always thoughtful and well-researched. – Mark Beadles Jan 13 '13 at 2:37
up vote 7 down vote accepted

I happen to have read that story. The narrator is a woman who is currently not in the work force and is reassessing everything about her life. On the shallower end of the pool, the story is a nearly morbid bout of psychological navel-gazing; at the deeper end, it calls into question how the artifice of the ego is constructed by outside forces just as much as from those inside.

I say that to preface this thought: the daylight ghost is meant to illuminate someone who is not really there, existing in a half-world, without real purpose and so without real existence. As Mark Beadles says, this is not an idiom (though I might quibble whether daylight served as an adjective there instead of a noun—but it hardly matters). The term is invented for the story, and is an example of how description can be rich while also being directly to the point. This isn't a lot of flowery adjectives: the descriptive terms are bullets in a gun that the narrator is aiming right at her own head.

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Daylight is a nominal adjective in the compound term daylight ghost. Daylight is, of course, a noun, as any dictionary'll tell you, but it modifies ghost, so it functions as an adjective. Arguing about whether it's a noun or an adjective is pointless: terminology explains nothing -- it merely classifies things make them easier to discuss (that's the object but not always the actual effect). – user21497 Jan 13 '13 at 3:30
@BillFranke: As I said, it hardly matters, which is another way of saying it is pointless to argue about it. For the record, Mark is the one calling it a noun. – Robusto Jan 13 '13 at 11:12
The word conjured me up ‘daydream’. Isn’t she saying she hasn’t been a daydreamer who use to indulge in an innocent dream? – Yoichi Oishi Jan 14 '13 at 0:57
Ghosts are normally seen at night, as are dreams. Each is out of place in the light. But a daydream is innocuous, whereas a daylight ghost is something too inspire fear and dread. – Robusto Jan 14 '13 at 2:01

I think here it is used precisely because it is not a common idiom. We can get the precise meaning from the rest of the passage, and hence the risk of it not being understood is reduced.

In writing generally, we want to have some imagery that is fresh and novel. Indeed, the familiar idioms start as such, then some are borrowed often. This tends to result in clichés that are boring and tired because they have been used so much that the original freshness is gone, and then they either die out or become idioms - where once they were used because they startled, now they are used because they have a simple meaning that is immediately understood.

The strength of the expression tells us a lot about what the narrator thinks of her situation, and the choice of words must be understood in that context. Certainly you should not use housewife this way generally - it's one thing to describe the perspective of a narrator who can only consider it negatively, but to use it that way generally could be seen as very insulting to homemakers.

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Of course daylight ghost is not a 'word'; it's also not a construction nor an idiom. It's just two nouns in apposition, with daylight modifying ghost: a ghost of the daylight. The sense is that this is in contrast to the usual ghost which haunts the night.

You will not find it in a dictionary for the same reason you will not find "kangaroo food": the meaning of the phrase is understood from its parts.

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While the definition this answer links to says that one noun modifies the other, it doesn't mean that it modifies the other in the same way that an adjective normally modifies a noun. In a hungry ghost, hungry describes the ghost's state of being. In Bob's friend Alice, friend & Alice are in apposition, and Alice is simply added information: friend can stand alone without Alice, & Alice can stand alone without Bob's friend. But in daylight ghost, daylight can't stand alone without ghost: that underscores the difference between nouns in apposition & nominal adjectives. – user21497 Jan 13 '13 at 3:40
@BillFranke though hungry ghost is an idiom with a precise meaning, that at least some readers would be familiar with, borrowed from Chinese idiom. – Jon Hanna Jan 13 '13 at 14:59
@Jon Hanna: I wasn't aware of that Chinese idiom, but it makes sense. Everywhere in Taiwan people set out tables to appease the ghosts of their ancestors. The tables are filled with food and the air filled with the smoke of ghost money so that the ancestors aren't hungry or poor in the afterlife. :-) – user21497 Jan 13 '13 at 15:04
@BillFranke if you were familiar with that, then maybe you did pick it up subconsciously and hence chose that adjective over another possible example. IIRC the phrase can mean any of two or three overlapping concepts, and the spirits you describe is one of them. – Jon Hanna Jan 13 '13 at 15:12
@Jon Hanna. We have a Japanese word ‘Gaki - 餓鬼’meaning a ‘hungry ogre (ghost),’ which came from Buddhist legend of the dead who were punished by God for their wrong-doings when they were alive in this world, and sent to the Inferno of Hunger. They are eternally agonized because every food and beverage they touch upon are instantly turned into fire. I didn’t know Chinese have the similar character. I checked several Chinese dictionaries and Chinese Japanese dictionaries at hand, but I was unable to find '餓鬼' or similar word under the heading of 餓-hunger / hungry. – Yoichi Oishi Jan 14 '13 at 8:45

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