Before “Ghosting” Was Slang For Ignoring A Dating Partner, It Was Slang For?
Answer: Long Term Identity Theft
Today, if you hear the term “ghosting”, you’re most likely hearing it within the context of a relationship story. The most frequently used form of “ghosting” in modern slang is to refer to withdrawing all communication from a dating partner and vanishing, like a ghost.
Historically, however, ghosting had a different meaning. “Ghosting” was to adopt the identity of a deceased person and, in effect, become a living ghost. There are several particularly interesting things about the phenomenon of identity theft ghosting. First, the phenomenon is almost entirely a 20th century one. Prior to the advent of Social Security in the United States in the 1930s (and other unique ID systems in other countries), there was little reason to ghost the identity of another person. Official identifying paperwork was few and far between, and if you needed to start fresh in a new place with a new name, it was relatively trivial to save a little money, take a long trip, and upon arrival introduce yourself with a new name, a new backstory, and start life fresh.
With the advent of unique identifiers tied into social structures like employment and credit, however, it became necessary to not just commit to creating a new life for yourself, but to have a new life to steal. Ghosters would carefully select a person that was like themselves (similar age, similar birthday, same gender and race) and steal that person’s identity. Unlike most identity thieves, however, they weren’t in it simply for financial benefit. Today, most identity thieves are happy to pretend to be you long enough to open lines of credit and empty your bank account. Ghosters, on the other hand, would do their best to be model citizens and even maintain good credit both to avoid the scrutiny of law enforcement and to have good credit for their newly assumed identity. After all, if you’re planning on pretending to be Robert Smith for the rest of your natural life, you certainly want Robert Smith to have a spotless record and good credit.
While the rise of unique identifiers in the 20th century gave rise to more widespread ghosting of identities, another 20th century invention gave rise to the decrease in ghosting: computers. Historically, the records of different government agencies were paper based and not interconnected in meaningful ways (if someone died, it was up to the family or the local administrative offices to send copies of the death certificate to a multitude of agencies to confirm the individual was deceased). In that way, it was easy for ghosters to lift an identity, and even if confronted with a death certificate for the real person, it was easy to deny that they were dead and let their indignation at being falsely declared dead steamroll any issues. With the rise of interconnected digital databases and easily accessible public records, however, the ability to simply lift the identity of a deceased person and use it as your own was significantly hampered. While ghosting isn’t absolutely unheard of today, it’s incredibly rare compared to half a century ago when it was significantly easier to adopt the paperwork trappings of another person’s life and carry on as if you were them.
Image courtesy of the State of New York/Wikimedia.