I've recently taken an interest in silent letters, and I discovered that the letter h in ghost was inserted by a faulty printer. On a search for similarly romantic etymologies, I ran into gherkin, from the archaic word gerkin, which stems from the Danish term gurken (according to Wiktionary and Etymonline). Is the story of the suddenly appearing h another such malfunction, folk etymology, or something else? Thanks.
- 1660s, from early modern Dutch gurken, augurken (late 16c.) "small pickled cucumber," from East Frisian augurk "cucumber."
- The Dutch suffix is perhaps the diminutive -kin, though some regard it as a plural affix, with the Dutch word mistaken for a singular in English. The -h- was added 1800s to preserve the hard "g" pronunciation.
"Gh" is a strange way for an English word to start. There are only a handful of commonly used words that begin with this spelling. Beyond the spirit cluster of ghost, ghastly, and ghoul, we have borrowed words like ghetto, gherkin, and ghee, some place names like Ghana and Ghent, and that’s about it.
“Ghoul” was borrowed into English in the 1700s from the Arabic ghul, but at first without the "h," as “goul” or “goule.” It was later lured over to the ‘gh’ group by its semantic similarity to “ghost.”
But how did ghost get its "gh"? Compared to the other "gh" words, “ghost” is both a lot more frequent and a lot older, going all the way back to Old English gást. Until the 1500s, over a few centuries of language change, it was spelled gast, gæst, gost, goste, goost, and goist. “Ghastly” from the related, Middle English gastliche, also came in "h"-free spellings until the 1500s.
We can trace the introduction of the "h" in ghost and ghastly back to William Caxton, the man who brought the printing press to England. He had established his first press in Bruges, and he brought some Flemish typesetters back with him when he returned to set up business in Westminster.
Gurke is also the word in German, not only Danish (agurk), Swedish (gurka) and Dutch (augurk), for the pickled variety. The word also appears in Russian, as (огурец), Ukrainian (огірок) and Polish (Ogórek). So it seems to be the common Germanic and Slavonic word.
Interesting that Dutch, like English, uses another word, presumably of French origin, for the longer, fresh variety (NL komkommer, EN cucumber, FR concombre). I have taken to explaining to my Ukrainian students that they are not the same.
I guess we can blame Caxton's Flemish typesetters for inserting this "h". The way "augurk" sounds in Flemish and Dutch, is a guttural sound /ɣ/ somewhere between "g" and "h".
There is also the spelling convention that "g" before "e" and "i" is soft as in "j", just like "c" is soft before "e" and "i". So, to keep the "g" hard, the "h" was inserted, rather like the Italian spaghetti, which would be sound like "spajetti" without the "h". Likewise, we insert a "u" in Portuguese to keep the "g" hard, but we don't need it in Portugal.