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Spectre or Specter – What’s the Difference?

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If you see a deathly apparition from beyond the grave, what should you call it? There are several options, including ghost , spirit, apparition, specter , and spectre .

Are specter and spectre the same word, though? These otherworldly beings are notorious for being stubborn and unpleasant, so you may not want to risk getting on one’s bad side by calling it a name it doesn’t like.

In reality, specter and spectre are two versions of the same word. Each version is used in a different language community. To learn more about when to use each spelling, continue reading.

What is the Difference Between Specter and Spectre?

In this post, I will compare specter vs. spectre . I will use each of these words in at least one example sentence, so you can see them in context.

Plus, I will show you a helpful memory tool that will allows you to more easily choose either specter or spectre .

When to Use Specter

Definition of specter definition and definition of spectre definition

Here are a few examples of specter in a sentence,

  • Coriolanus awoke to the horrid specter of his dead wife harassing him from beyond the world of dreams.
  • The specter of divorce loomed over the couple’s failing marriage.
  • Analysts also raised the specter of lower growth with Snap, given that the company’s user growth slowed last year. – The New York Times

Specter is essentially another word for ghost in everyday usage. One important difference is that a ghost typically serves as a reminder of something that happened in the past, while a specter portends something that will happen in the future.

When to Use Spectre

Define specter and define spectre

  • His warning comes days after the Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, claimed a spectre of stagnation was haunting Europe. – The Guardian

As you can see from the charts below, which chart spectre vs. specter in English books since 1800, the preference for spectre and specter in British and American English, respectively, is quite pronounced.

American English:

spectre versus specter

British English:

How to spell specter

These charts aren’t 100 percent exhaustive in their scope, obviously, since they only look at books (not magazine or newspapers) published in English since 1800. Still, they clearly illustrate the spelling preferences for this noun in different language communities.

Trick to Remember the Difference

Specter and spectre are the same word. Which spelling you use depends on your intended audience.

  • Use specter with predominantly American audiences.
  • Use spectre for audiences composed primarily of British readers.

Both words rhyme with the masculine name Hector when pronounced aloud.

Spectre might seem overly affected to American audiences, while specter could strike British audiences as simplistic or uncultured. Thus, it is important to remember which word to use when.

Since spectre ends in an E , which is the same letter that can be found at the beginning of England, pairing spectre with British English should be a simple task.

Is it spectre or specter? Specter and spectre are spelling variants of a noun that means a ghost or ghostlike apparition .

  • American writers use specter .
  • British audiences use specter .

In other respects, the words are identical.


Definition of 'specter'

A haunting or unsettling image, concept, or idea that elicits fear, anxiety, or unease. "The specter of war cast a shadow over the diplomatic negotiations."

Detailed Meaning of 'specter'

It often implies a ghostly or supernatural presence that appears as a disturbing or threatening apparition. The term "specter" can also be used metaphorically to represent something that causes widespread apprehension, concern, or uncertainty, typically related to potential dangers, negative consequences, or looming problems. It carries a sense of looming or impending doom, conjuring up feelings of dread or foreboding. A specter can represent an intangible threat or a lingering fear that has the power to haunt and torment individuals or societies. It embodies the notion of an unsettling presence that hangs over a situation, casting a shadow of uncertainty and uneasiness.

Examples of 'specter' in a Sentence

1. The abandoned mansion was rumored to be haunted by a spectral specter. 2. The specter of economic recession loomed over the country, causing widespread anxiety. 3. The politician used the specter of rising crime rates to rally public support for stricter laws. 4. The disease outbreak was a specter that haunted the town, leading to widespread panic. 5. The specter of unemployment kept many people awake at night, worrying about their future. 6. The failed experiment left behind a specter of doubt regarding the scientist's credibility.

Origins and Etymology of 'specter'

Specter,' as a noun, originates from the Latin word 'spectrum,' which meant 'apparition' or 'ghost.' Over time, this term evolved, and in English, it became 'specter.' A specter refers to a haunting or unsettling image, concept, or idea that elicits fear, anxiety, or unease. It often carries connotations of the supernatural, suggesting the presence of something eerie or otherworldly. In literature and folklore, specters are often associated with ghosts or phantoms, and they symbolize the lingering fears and uncertainties that can haunt the human psyche, making them a powerful and enduring symbol in storytelling and the human imagination.

Vocabulary Lists Containing 'specter'

specter literary definition


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Definition of specter noun from the Oxford Advanced American Dictionary

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Find out which words work together and produce more natural-sounding English with the Oxford Collocations Dictionary app. Try it for free as part of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary app.

specter literary definition

Among the echoes called to mind here are those of the spectre and the uncanny, and these inevitably draw us close to the concerns of deconstruction and psychoanalysis respectively. There is, for example, an overarching question about the ambiguities of deconstruction, and especially about deconstruction’s workings between textuality and politics. The emblematic text here is Derrida ‘s Specters of Marx, which essays a `different’ version of history: not as linear development, but as the site of multiple hauntings. Speaking with the ghost of Hamlet’s father in mind, Derrida suggests that

…everything begins by the apparition of a specter. More precisely by the waiting for this apparition. The anticipation is at once impatient, anxious, and fascinated: this, the thing (`this thing’) will end up coming. The revenant is going to come. (Derrida, 1994, 4)

Everything, then, begins in – and perhaps continues to reside in – an absence, a premonition of arrival which will never be fully removed or replaced. Thus – and here as the spur to an account of recent European history and the fate of communism – Derrida engages with the looping circularity of history, whereby there is, as in the Gothic, never an origin, or a never-origin, a state whereby the past refuses to be entirely occluded but remains to haunt the apparent site of enlightened new beginnings: in the beginning – apparently – is the apparition. History therefore cannot be written without ghosts, but the point goes further than this: the narratives of history must necessarily include ghosts – indeed they can include little else – but they will also be written by ghosts. History is a series of accounts of the dead, but it is also a series of accounts by the dead; the voices we overhear in our dealings with history are spectral without exception, they spectralize the possibility of knowledge.

This inevitably connects, through the notion of the uncanny, through the conflation of the homely and the unhomely, the familiar and the unfamiliar, with the older tradition of `Freudian history’, from which, as from the unconscious, nothing ever goes away. We need to have in mind, for example, the vision Freud offers of Rome in Civilisation and its Discontents; he offers it to us as a city which, as he remarks in a resonant phrase, is now ‘taken by ruins’. But `now’ – perhaps, therefore in a different but equally problematic ‘present’ moment –

…let us, by a flight of imagination, suppose that Rome is not a human habitation but a psychical entity with a similarly long and copious past – an entity, that is to say, in which nothing that has once come into existence will have passed away and all the earlier phases of development continue to exist alongside the latest one. (Freud, XXI, 7)

According to this vision – although we might equally refer to it as a hallucination – `in Rome the palaces of the Caesars and the Septizonium of Septimius Severus would still be rising to their old height on the Palatine’, `the castle of S. Angelo would still be carrying on its battlements the beautiful statues which graced it until the siege by the Goths’, and so forth. In other words, according to a Freudian historiography , a history of the unconscious, nothing would ever have gone away. Clearly the mention of the Goths – as the ineffectual erasers of a prior memory that will never go away, as the sign of the hovering and recurring possibility symbolized by the `dark ages’ – is not accidental here; but neither is the tense of the verb, that repeating `would’ that characterizes spectral criticism, that comes helplessly to replace the `is’ that can no longer stand in the light of the endless returns of history: the rule, we might say, of the phantomatic hypothesis.

According to the development of this new historiography – which is at the same time a recrudescence of the concept of the `ancient’ – social life and its cultural textualities, however material they may appear, are constituted as much by absence as by presence, and the past takes the form of a series of apparitions that can be neither addressed nor banished. This, of course, has been the `lesson’ of psychoanalysis right from its own – deeply contested – origins; what, after all, was the status of linear history under the conditions of hypnosis and somnambulism within which psychoanalysis emerged? What, however, has been distinctive within the last two decades has been the insistence with which psychoanalysis has associated itself with the (Gothic) language of the crypt and the phantom. Emblematic here has been the work of Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok , first in The Wolf Man’s Magic Word and later in the essays collected in The Shell and the Kernel.

What this work principally points to is a psychic space different from the unconscious, a location that is not a location but whose existence is felt only as an insistent pressure from an otherwise absent or unattributable source. This `crypt’, according to Abraham and Torok , is the repository of the secrets of the past, it is the place where the memories of our parents and grandparents are buried, the site on which are stored all the stories which have been too painful, too embarrassing, too revealing to tell; it is in the crypt that the secrets of our own genesis may be buried, but we are ourselves unaware not only of its contents but of its existence or whereabouts, and even psychoanalysis , according to this theory, can exert only a limited influence over the crypt’s role in psychic life, however much the psychoanalytic encounter seeks to replicate the conditions of an underlying dialogue with the dead.

This in turn, we might say, suggests new approaches to textuality, approaches based on a notion of the `text instead’, ways of reading `through’ the material text to a `different absence’. The whole tenor of The Wolf Man’s Magic Word is geared towards the exposure of a `text that lies beneath the text’ which haunts all words with its insistent pressure; Abraham and Torok ‘s final reckoning with the Wolf Man – a reckoning which is itself, of course, really an engagement with the phantoms of Freud and of the Wolf Man himself – results in the excavation of a single word, but a word which, because of its `magic’ proclivities, takes on a phantomatic status, as though it has secretly controlled the Wolf Man’s whole life from, as it were, behind his back.

We may choose to take issue with the simple act of banishment which concludes, but at the same time undercuts, the subtleties of Abraham and Torok ‘s dealings with the subterranean and the absent, but it nonetheless follows from this that no word can be understood in terms of its own claim to status, its own referent; often the words we use, the words we read, can only be paradoxically understood as responses to prior signals, more originary forms, forms that remain incomprehensible in themselves. Within all of us, Abraham and Torok suggest, such a crypt exists, and we place over it a guard, emblem of the strength of our resistance to the arrival of the apparition, to the return of the undead, a `cemetery guard’. Nevertheless:

. . . sometimes in the dead of night, when libidinal fulfilments have their way, the ghost of the crypt comes back to haunt the cemetery guard, giving him strange and incomprehensible signals, making him perform bizarre acts, or subjecting him to unexpected sensations. ( Abraham and Torok , 1994, 130)

A battle, then, between two phantomatic figures, one who seeks to remind and one who seeks the prevention of such dangerous rememoration; this is perhaps an encounter reminiscent of similar battles on the terrain of trauma . In so far as this might be so, it would therefore have to be realized that the critical act of isolating and interpreting takes place only within an encircling horizon of mistranslation, of uninterpretability: the words we read, like the words we utter, are themselves always responses, they are answers to questions we cannot perceive, they are attempts to solve problems we cannot imagine, they are mere residues of an entirely different, spectral struggle. What we experience of the dialogue presupposes a phantom `on the other side’, a side of the dialogue to which we can never gain access but which nevertheless ineluctably reconstructs itself within the very harmonics of the voice we think we hear.

We are here on a terrain of compulsion, much like the Gothic’s compulsive, obsessive return to a prior terrain; we are in the place which is haunted, where we know a ghost to `exist’ but can nevertheless offer no explanation for the bizarre recurrences and effects of its apparition:

The phantom’s periodic and compulsive return lies beyond the scope of symptom-formation in the sense of a return of the repressed; it works like a ventriloquist, like a stranger within the subject’s own mental topography. The imaginings issuing from the presence of a stranger have nothing to do with fantasy strictly speaking. They neither preserve a topographical status nor announce a shift in it. (Abraham and Torok, 1994, 173)

Like a stranger, like a `foreign body’ within the self, like a ventriloquist, calling into question the `authenticity’ of the words we speak even as we speak them, reminding us that `our’ words are always simultaneously the residues, the traces, of the words of others.

It would therefore follow that the ghost  in the text cannot be experienced either as conserving the past or as ridding us of the past’s hold: to suppose either would be to attempt to categorize the phantom within Enlightenment norms, to `subject’ the ghost to a logic that cannot recognize its existence (and thus remains inexplicably haunted by its own other). This would be the logic also explored by Julia Kristeva in her Strangers to Ourselves, where she explores the notion of foreignness in relation both to the external other and also to the other within ourselves; it would also lead us to a more extensive encounter with the `foreign body’, with the other within ourselves, always again implicit within Freudian theory but emerging with particular force in the criticism – and also in the literature – of the last two decades.

However, before proceeding down this line one would also want to consider the recent work of Jean Laplanche on otherness and its potential implications for textual study. Laplanche ‘s main argument in his Essays on Otherness is against Jacques Lacan ‘s famous – or notorious – claim that the unconscious is structured like a language, with the concomitant implication that the unconscious can be in some sense deconstructed according to a certain set of rules – the issues of metaphor and metonymy, condensation and displacement are central here – so as to yield meaning. The unconscious, according to Laplanche , is quite different from this, and this `difference’ is to be grasped only in terms of the `message’ and the enigma.

According to Laplanche , Lacan ‘s account of the unconscious is hostage to an unexamined assumption of the primacy of language; thus anything he has to say is vitiated by his very act of saying it, his blindness to the possibility of alternative primacies, other origins, that might relegate the verbal – and thus the textual – to a different role in development, and one that is inevitably haunted by that which preceded it. This then would be the essence of haunting, that the very words in which we try to describe our experience come only as replacements, as – as we have already suggested – a `text instead’.

The messages which are the object of the first translations are not essentially verbal, nor are they `intellectual’. They include in large part signifiers of affect, which can be either translated or repressed: a smile (in Leonardo), an angry gesture, a grimace of disgust, etc. These signifiers, if  they are repressed, will be designified, in the same way as are more `intellectual’ signifiers. The `exclusion’ of affect here is nothing but a general consequence of the exclusion of the signified. (Laplanche, 1999, 108)

All communication, according to Laplanche , is predicated on a radical incompleteness: the gesture, the represented affect, that the child perceives is not only incomprehensible to the child but, more importantly, it is incomprehensible to and unperceived by the parent, and can therefore only be transmitted as an enigma. The enigma is not at all the same as a problem, for a problem may have a solution; the enigma, as Laplanche sees it, is incapable of solution, for it is inexplicable even to its own apparent originator; it is a ghostly message which might appear in the form of a conundrum but which comes with no key with which to unlock the `apparent secret’ (a paradox, of course, in itself). Thus, if we were to extend Laplanchean theory, we might say that all communication (and thus all textuality) is accompanied by a different communication, one that mysteriously takes place between crypts, one in which the word has no part to play except as a covering over a `different’ scenario. As we talk, ghosts behind our backs gesticulate and murmur to each other; as we turn to observe them, they vanish. What we think we understand is putatively rescued from the enigma; but in the beginning, as it were, is the sphinx. On this reading, the Oedipal myth would not have much to do with sexuality; it would hinge rather on the shared triumphalist myth that the sphinx ‘s words can somehow be recapitulated, understood; it would be this logocentric error that sealed Oedipus’ fate, his assumption – shared with the entire city of Thebes – that the existence of a riddle presupposes the existence of a solution.


Ghosts obey no such logic, and this in turn links with developments on the interface between the literary and the theological, where an emblematic text would be the proceedings, edited by Philippa Berry and Andrew Wernick under the title The Shadow of Spirit: Postmodernism and Religion , of a conference held in Cambridge in 1990 whose themes underlined the phantomatic status of text itself, the inevitable (at least within the western Christian tradition) pressure of `spirit’ (however that term may be conceived) upon materiality. `[A] darker, more obscure way of seeing and thinking – a perspective which is perhaps more appropriate to the twilight regions where philosophy now finds itself – appears gradually to be replacing our long-established visual drive to power and truth’, Berry suggests in her introduction to the volume, thereby situating the concept of the shadow within the very `oculocentric’ rhetoric of enlightenment. She refers also to an `in-between and shadowy intellectual region which we have inherited from Nietzsche and others’, to the possibility expressed by Emmanuel Levinas of thinking the gods and the divine `otherwise’, to the `nonabsent absence of the holy’ (Berry and Wernick, 1992, 2, 4).

In these formulations – and in many others in the various essays in the volume – one cannot but hear the ambiguous presence of the spectral. Although Berry and the other contributors wisely avoid essaying a definition of what the relation might be between the postmodern and this haunted condition, we may nonetheless extrapolate that the icy and knowing fracturings of the postmodern need also to be seen as a `new’ set of defences – defences which, as is always the way of defences, call our attention to precisely the material that they are apparently designed to repel. An important question might then be put: when we ask what the postmodern is doing, we need to break this question down and to look at it under two different (although inseparable) headings. First we need to ask what the postmodern is trying to protect us from; but second, what is it calling into being, `calling up’, invoking in its gestural la guage, under the guise of its status as `cemetery guard’?

On these bases we might now move to formulate some hypotheses about spectral criticism. It depends, as we have seen, upon the `law of the orphan’, the assertion that no attempt to assert textual parentage can properly `take’, that neither paternity nor maternity can be known and that the provenance of the text will immediately take us into a shadowy realm that lies behind the word – and even behind the imagistic realm of the womb, gestation, the creative matrix. Its model would be the Gothic, the apparent return of a transmuted past – a past which, to be sure, we know full well to have little historical accuracy but which continues to inflect our dealings with that past and which will, in the end, grow monstrously so as to occlude the possibility of accuracy altogether, as memory itself selects its own moments, unconsciously and frequently with trauma as its only guide, to represent but simultaneously to defeat a past that cannot be rendered wholesale. Its fundamental trope would be the uncanny, the impossibility of discerning a clear disjunction between what is known and what is not known – we would be here on the terrain of what Christopher Bollas ( 1987 ) has memorably referred to as the `unthought known’, that body of `knowledge’ that is incapable of conscious recapitulation yet which forms the ground of our every action. Its characteristic form would not be language but the enigmatic `message’, the message seen as always shadowed by the incomprehensible, always containing within itself the enigmatic possibility that we are, as it were, looking at the wrong side of the paper (or at the paper before, or after, it has been temporarily inscribed). The text, therefore, would always be open to construal as the `text instead’, the wrong text, a ghostly alteration of a prior state of material being which is unsusceptible of recapture.

Interestingly, we can see a convergent development in theology itself with books such as Reading Bibles,  Writing Bodies: Identity and the Book , edited by Timothy K. Beal and David M. Gunn (1997), which seek to recast the `spiritual’ concerns of the Bible in terms of the materiality of the word (the Word). Here a new field shows signs of coming into being, a field in which the term `spirit’ itself, with its phantomatic associations, becomes the heart of the problem. This western, Christian constellation itself, however, has been recently further offset or `ghosted’ by other concurrent developments in criticism. The most important instance here would be that of postcolonial criticism , which has repeatedly called attention to the spectral presence in postcolonial texts of past histories of violence, imperialism and exploitation as the principal ground on which a postcolonial writing must be constructed. According to these ideas, history is again conceived as a matter of ghosts, phantoms, haunted sites; thus, for example, terms like `primitivism’ and `superstition’ can be subjected to a reversal and seen less as `natural’ features of specific colonized cultures than as the outcroppings of primal encounters between cultures, encounters which have been repressed beneath the rewritings – or reroutings – of history but which nevertheless remain in the explosive crypts of defeated nations. An example here would be Michael Taussig ‘s (1993) work on South American shamanism , which sets out to show that the powers of healing ascribed to the `native’ were effects more of the desire of the western invader to be `healed’ than of anything ‘pre-existent’ in a native culture itself; according to studies such as this, which turn the entire concept of `anthropology’ on its head, what is revealed by the western `invasion’ of other realms is a refracted, distorted image of the invader himself, a ghostly representation in which the will to dominate is shown in its true colours but where simultaneously the essential weakness, the terror that accompanies violence, stares back at us from the mirror, robed in death.

The most important provocation here would be towards a re-examination of the ways in which deconstruction and postcolonial criticism themselves relate as mutual phantoms. One way of approaching this terrain would be through a consideration of the `foreign body’. According to Royle , the term “foreign body” would name that which makes every identity, all language, perception and experience different from itself . . . there is a certain foreign body which works over our language, over what we say and read and write, and which corresponds . . . to a notion of what Derrida refers to as “the `other of language” ‘; the other “which is beyond language and which summons language” ‘ ( Royle, 1995 , 146). This, it seems to me, is approximately in accord with a general dialectic of the spectral. What one might, however, reply – or at least propose as a `supplement’ – in the postcolonial moment to such assertions might hinge on the conception of the `foreign’, on how such a category comes to be constituted, on what imagistic models one might be unconsciously relying on to provide an image of radical alterity.


One might also suggest that, although the phantomatic may be a function of language in general, it might also be a function of specific relations between and among languages, so that the issue of the speaking voice would never be reducible to a singularity but would instead be considered in terms of the `foreigning’ of the apparently natural, the inner sense of a language not our own – which again would have general implications in terms of the domination of the linguistic, but would also be brought to a head when considering what languages can be used in postcolonial situations, in situations where a certain violation, an imperialist robbery of authority, has always occurred and where the voices speaking at our shoulder, the ghosts of the past, are all too apparent,  the ‘apparitions’ all too `present’. Do all ghosts, we might ask, speak English?

The colonial and postcolonial scenes are, whatever our reply to that question (and in whatever language), populated by ghosts. Robert J. C. Young develops this point in an essay on – and addressed to – Derrida and in particular to Derrida’s position as Algerian and as Jewish. He quotes Albert Memmi on this `inarticulated’ community:

Their constant and very justifiable ambition is to escape from their colonised condition… To that end, they endeavour to resemble the coloniser in the frank hope that he may cease to consider them different from him. Hence their efforts to forget the past, to change collective habits, and their enthusiastic adoption of Western language, culture and customs. But if the coloniser does not always openly discourage these candidates to develop that resemblance, he never permits them to attain it either. Thus, they live in constant and painful ambiguity. (Young, 2000, 204-5)

One of the (haunting) references here, although it may not be explicit, is nonetheless pressing: it is to the crowd of shades on the banks of the Lethe, who indeed `live in constant and painful ambiguity’, although perhaps `live’ is too unambiguous a word. We might think, in the same vein, of the character in T. S. Eliot ‘s Little Gidding who encounters `the eyes of a familiar compound ghost/Both intimate and unidentifiable’. `I was still the same’, he protests in the face of this uncanny revelation:

Knowing myself yet being someone other – And he a face still forming; yet the words sufficed To compel the recognition they preceded. And so, compliant to the common wind, Too strange to each other for misunderstanding, In concord at this intersection time Of meeting nowhere, no before and after, We trod the pavement in a dead patrol. (Eliot, 1963, 217)

This, then, would be one image for the condition of the spectral: to recognize and yet not to recognize the other; to recognize a foreign body at the heart of the self; to be aware and yet to be unable fully to articulate the sense that one’s very vocabulary, even perhaps one’s gestures, have been formed by the other. There is, to put it in a different rhetoric, a mutual impossibility of banishment: the colonizer can no more remove his `subject’ from his sight than can the colonized lift the weight of imposition from his heart. Instead, there emerges a spectral logic in which the foreign body is loosed yet simultaneously tied in place, free – like a ghost – to roam the world, yet simultaneously shackled – like a ghost – to a particular place and time, the significance of which may only be revealed on the horizon of an unascertainable future.

This though, spectral criticism will go on to say, is inseparably the condition of both the postcolonial – considered as the defining mark of an age rather than of specific cultures – and the postmodern; for all representation, according to some arguments, now falls under the revealed but occluded sign of the phantom – a sign which now, it would seem, has come to occlude Jean Baudrillard ‘s simplistic and commercially problematic late twentieth-century notion of the `simulacrum’. Let us consider another example, another time, another medium. `Early viewers of film’, we are told by one critic, `were amazed and moved by this miraculous gift dispensed by film, that of reanimating what had gone …Like Christ calling Lazarus, film seemed to bring back to life what had been irrevocably lost; it blurred uncannily the distinction between life and death’ (Smith, 2000, 121). Lazarus again, the evidence which defies all evidence, the test of truth and faith which, if accepted, will plunge us into a universe of ghosts. The complete transcript, the irrefutable truth: film appeared to promise – promised like an apparition – the incontrovertible; yet simultaneously, as we are now increasingly seeing in the literally endless lying of videotape, it paved the way for the most powerful of all challenges to the integrity of the past, it allowed for the insertion of a radical, phantomatic doubt about ‘the truth’ which has now come to bear fruit in what we – perhaps temporarily – designate `virtual reality’.

As we look now, with twentieth-first-century eyes, at these developments then there emerges an obvious connection with alterations in the notion of textuality itself, particularly in so far as it is now mediated through `virtual reality’ – although perhaps we would do better to see this simply as a different type of `virtual reality’, in series with all the other `imaginary truths’ that textuality has promised us down the ages. Examples here might be drawn from critical writing, but they also abound in the various `cyber-genres’, as practised by William Gibson ,  Iain Banks and others, with their consequences for the notions of the `endurng word’. The wholesale revision of the time and space of literature thus suggested would produce its own ghosts, the relics of a textuality already on the point of vanishing, beyond recall in the very moment of its emergence as the cyborg exerts a spectral influence over the domain of the literary.

In Gibson ‘s emblematic Neuromancer , for example, the logic of the spectral prevails. Regardless of the demands of narrative, we need to negotiate the reality status of passages such as this:

Directly overhead, along the nighted axis, the hologram sky glittered with fanciful constellations suggesting playing cards, the faces of dice, a top hat, a martini glass. The intersection of Desiderata and Jules Verne formed a kind of gulch, the balconied terraces of Freeside cliff dwellers rising gradually to the grassy tablelands of another casino complex. Case watched a drone microlight bank gracefully in an updraft at the green verge of an artificial mesa, lit for seconds by the soft glow of the invisible casino . . . He’d seen a wink of reflected neon off glass, either lenses or theturrets of lasers. (Gibson, 1994, 180)

The question would be, in what sense – or perhaps to what (altered) senses – are these scenes recognizable? But in this specific case, this could also readily resolve itself into a question of perspective: from what position are we looking, through what sorts of eyes – and what then is the self – or not-self – that lies behind these perceptions? The recognizability, such as it is, could lie in the scenario of the very rich, in the possibility that we are here simply looking at wealth and dominance through the eyes of a spectator who is himself – or herself, or itself – a foreign body, and that thus we can `retranslate’ these fragments into a recognizable societal whole. The alternative, however, might be well signalled by the notion of the `intersection of Desiderata and Jules Verne’, the question, as we might say, of the desired object that can nevertheless never be found, the source of the endless journey of Captain Nemo in the shadowy darknesses of the oceans, the suggestion that a ghost’s eyes might be permanently, as it were, under water, open but only to blindness, or dazzled by possibilities that are too numerous, too fast, too instantly self-replicating, to permit any grasp on the `cliff’ of the virtually real.

Such a perception would always be, in some sense, ruined; it would take place only in a realm where the sight and the understanding had already been severed, the optical nerve cut off at the root. Ghosts, we might say, with large eyes, wide shut. And it would be on the note of the term `ruin’ that the notion of spectral criticism both returns us to its own origin in the Gothic ruins of the eighteenth century (and of the Dark Ages, and of Greece and Rome) and simultaneously gestures forward towards further developments: for what is the ruin?

All texts, perhaps, are ruins; that is to say, they are relics of the unrealized projects of their former selves. They have, as it were, already collapsed; none the more so than the literary masterpieces of the canon. When we come to read a text in the half-light of spectrality, we find ourselves approaching a ruin, an object of antiquarian delight and fear, the site of a potential reconstruction whose success will always elude us. Thus, we might say, spectral criticism offers a certain – and deeply uncertain – humility in the face of the text, a necessary opposition to the vaunted possibilities of accurate historical exhumation, a realization of the partiality of all our efforts. In this light, again, we might want to say that our efforts to focus on the text are all but destroyed before they have begun; this is not to say that spectral criticism has no discursive role to play, but rather the reverse: that the role it plays is the only possible one unless we are to succumb to the fantasy identifications that attend on our other attempts to inhabit the house of the dead. Texts, therefore, are not themselves; they are something quite other, and it is only in (or with) this spirit that a text may be approached.

Source: Introducing Criticism at the 21st Century by Julian Wolfreys, Edinburgh University Press, 2002.

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Definition of specter

"specter" in the noun sense, 1. ghost, shade, spook, wraith, specter, spectre.

a mental representation of some haunting experience

"he looked like he had seen a ghost"

"it aroused specters from his past"

2. apparition, phantom, phantasm, phantasma, fantasm, specter, spectre

a ghostly appearing figure

"we were unprepared for the apparition that confronted us"

Source: WordNet® (An amazing lexical database of English) Princeton University "About WordNet®." WordNet®. Princeton University. 2010. View WordNet® License

Quotations for specter

However powerful one may be, whether one laughs or weeps, none can make thee speak, none can open thy hand before the time, O mute phantom, our shadow! specter always masked, ever at our side, called Tomorrow. [ Victor Hugo ]

specter in Scrabble®

The word specter is playable in Scrabble®, no blanks required.

Scrabble® Letter Score: 11

Highest scoring scrabble® plays in the letters specter :, seven letter word alert: (5 words).

respect, scepter, sceptre, specter, spectre

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The 200 highest scoring scrabble® plays for words using the letters in specter, specter in words with friends™.

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Words With Friends™ Letter Score: 13

Highest scoring words with friends™ plays in the letters specter :, all words with friends™ plays for the word specter, the 200 highest scoring words with friends™ plays using the letters in specter, words within the letters of specter, 2 letter words in specter (2 words), 3 letter words in specter (6 words), 4 letter words in specter (15 words), 5 letter words in specter (21 words), 6 letter words in specter (9 words), 7 letter words in specter (anagrams) (5 words), specter + 1 blank (13 words), specter + 2 blanks (34 words), words containing the sequence specter, words that start with specter (3 words), words with specter in them (4 words), words that end with specter (4 words), word growth involving specter, shorter words in specter, longer words containing specter.

respecter disrespecter disrespecters

respecter respecters disrespecters


specters respecters disrespecters

specters suspecters

suspecter suspecters

Cambridge Dictionary

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Meaning of specter in English

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  • horizon scanning
  • premonition
  • premonitory
  • there's no knowing/telling/saying idiom
  • unforeseeable
  • unintuitively
  • unreasoning

You can also find related words, phrases, and synonyms in the topics:

specter | American Dictionary

Examples of specter, translations of specter.

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The History Behind 8 Halloween Words


A haunted house is one that is scary, usually because of the presence of spirits or ghosts (and typically also in need of a paint job). Though the verb haunt does mean “to visit or inhabit as a ghost,” that’s not the original sense of the word. In fact, for centuries the word had a perfectly unfrightening set of meanings: “to visit often” and “to continually seek the company of.” In the 1500s, haunt began to mean “to have a disquieting or harmful effect on,” as in “that problem may come back to haunt you.” The meaning here is simply the lingering presence of the problem, not the possibly scary nature of the problem itself; it is applied to thoughts, memories, and emotions. The noun haunt retains this fright-neutral definition, “a place that you go to often,” as in “one of my favorite old haunts.”

A lingering idea, memory, or feeling may have led to the ghostly meaning of haunt , or one by a disembodied or imaginary spirit, proving that what we truly fear is in our head.


Ghosts may be the most basic of Halloween costumes, and ghost is a basic English word, going all the way back a thousand years to the earliest recorded evidence of the language. It originally meant “vital spark” or “the seat of life or intelligence,” which is still used in the phrase “give up the ghost.” The most common meaning today, “a disembodied soul” or “the soul or specter of a deceased person” came next, a meaning based on the ancient folkloric notion that the spirit is separable from the body and can continue its existence after death.

Recently during a ghost tour at the restaurant, someone snapped a photo that appears to show a ghost hanging out of a third-floor window. People say the photo resembles a little girl with her hand stretched out, and that observation coincides with a ghost story from there. — WJZ , 21 Oct. 2019

An older spelling of ghost , gast , is the root of aghast (“struck with terror, shocked”) and ghastly (“frightening”). The German word for ghost , geist , is part of the word zeitgeist , which literally means “spirit of the time.”


On October 28, The Damned are hosting (and playing) the "night of a thousand vampires" at London's Palldium. The band is hoping to make it the largest gathering of vampires ever recorded, and are trying to get into the Guinness book of world records. The band is requiring that people come dressed as vamps, and upon arrival, you have to sign in to confirm your Drac-status. The band is playing two sets and you can see their statement below. — John Gentile, Punknews.org , 22 Oct. 2019

As legends go, vampires are certainly ancient, but the word vampire is not. Legends of bloodsucking creatures go back to Ancient Greece, with harrowing tales of them rising from burial places at night to drink peoples’ blood before hiding from dawn’s daylight. These stories were especially popular in eastern Europe, and the word vampire originally comes from the Serbian word vampir , which then passed from German to French, coming to English in the 1700s.

The extended senses of vampire , “one who lives by preying on others” and a synonym of vampire bat , were both in use within a few decades.


Banshee came from combining the Gaelic words meaning “woman of fairyland,” but any positive associations with fairies ends there. Banshees are female spirits that, if seen or heard wailing under the windows of a house, foretell of a death in the family that lives there. Today the word is most frequently heard in the idiom “scream like a banshee” or “wail like a banshee,” which shows the power of myth and the imaginative power of language, since probably no one has actually heard one.


Goblin is a word that has lost some of its menace over the centuries. When Milton used it in Paradise Lost , it packed a punch as another name for Death:

Whence and what art thou, execrable shape, That dar'st, though grim and terrible, advance Thy miscreated Front athwart my way To yonder Gates? through them I mean to pass, That be assur'd, without leave askt of thee: Retire, or taste thy folly, and learn by proof, Hell-born, not to contend with Spirits of Heav'n. To whom the Goblin full of wrauth reply'd. Art thou that Traitor Angel, art thou hee […]

Goblin means “an ugly or grotesque sprite sometimes conceived as evil and malicious and sometimes as merely playful and mischievous,” and sprite , a cute-sounding word, is simply a variation of spirit , originally meaning “soul,” and therefore a synonym of ghost , the oldest sense of which was also “soul.” The playfulness of goblin probably goes back to its roots in the Greek word meaning “rogue.”

Hobgoblin picks up on that idea of playfulness, and is usually a less threatening kind of spirit. The hob of hobgoblin comes from a Middle English nickname for “Robert” or “Robin,” and referred to a rustic or unsophisticated country dweller. Ralph Waldo Emerson used it famously in his essay “Self-Reliance”: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”


The distinguishing quality of a wraith , compared with other ghosts, is its specificity. Originally, it referred to either the exact likeness of a living person seen as an apparition just before that person’s death as a kind of spectral premonition of bad news, or a visible apparition of a dead person.

The most famous spirit associated with the city would have to be the White Lady of the Berliner Schloss. Long, long before its current reconstruction, the halls of the palace were said to be roamed by a female wraith - the first reports hail from the mid-17th century. — Michael Stuchbery, TheLocal.de , 16 Oct. 2019

When referring to a living person, it’s a synonym of doppelgänger , or the “spirit double” of a living person (as opposed to a ghost, which refers to the spirit of a dead person). Doppelgänger is now frequently used in a broader sense to mean simply “someone who looks like someone else.” When referring to a dead person, wraith is a synonym of revenant , which originally referred to a ghost of a particular person and subsequently has been used for a person who returns after a long absence.

A more rare synonym of both senses of wraith is fetch (which is unrelated to the fetch that means “go and get”).


Ghoul is a relatively recent English word, borrowed from Arabic in the 1700s. Because it’s spelled with gh- , it looks vaguely like the Old English words ghost and ghastly (which share a common root in the Old English word gāst , meaning “spirit” or “ghost”). In fact, it comes from the Arabic word ghūl , derived from the verb that means “to seize,” and originally meant “a legendary evil being held to rob graves and feed on corpses.” The word was introduced to western literature by the French translation of Arabian Nights .


Specter originally meant “a visible disembodied spirit” in English—a good synonym for ghost .

Legend has it that a female specter who haunted the churchyard in Rathkeale, Limerick was so terrifying that all who looked upon her died soon after. A local man banished the ghost by slicing off her arm with his sword and praying for the rest of the night. In an odd coincidence in 2009, the Limerick Newswire reported that a tree stump in the churchyard contains the image of the Virgin Mary and Child and that hundreds of visitors had come to the area to pray. — Irish Central , 24 Oct. 2019

But, unlike ghost , the notion of being visible is paramount in specter , which came to English from the French word spectre , which developed directly from the Latin word spectrum , meaning “appearance” or “specter,” itself based on the verb specere , meaning “to look.” Specere is also the root of many English words that have to do with appearance: aspect , conspicuous , inspect , perspective , and spectacle . It’s also a distant relative of spy —appropriately enough, since Spectre , using the British spelling, is the name of one of the enemy agencies in the James Bond novels (and the title of one the films).

Specter can also mean “a ghostly and usually fear-inspiring vision of the imagination”—in other words, something that haunts the mind.

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Definition of 'specter'

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specter in American English

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a visible incorporeal spirit, especially one of a terrifying nature; ghost; phantom; apparition.

some object or source of terror or dread: the specter of disease or famine.

Origin of specter

  • Also especially British , spec·tre .

synonym study For specter

Other words for specter, words nearby specter.

  • spectacular
  • spectator pump
  • spectator sport
  • spectinomycin
  • spectral line

Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2024

How to use specter in a sentence

In 2019, as annual visitor numbers topped 3 million for the first time, locals loudly lamented crowding, traffic and the specter of paradise lost.

The first night, my sims met friendly green specters, which are different from the normal ghost sims that were included in the base game.

Each time the specter arrived, he’d wordlessly express love and leave Evan with a sense of peace and calm.

The UK and EU have reached a trade agreement, avoiding the specter of a no-deal Brexit and ending years of extreme economic uncertainty on both sides.

He focused on the importance of strict election deadlines and raised the specter of “chaos” if the Democrats won this case.

Despite his efforts to live in the present, he seemed haunted by the specter of his father.

Against the Grain By Michael specter , The New Yorker Should you go gluten-free?

The specter of wrongful convictions haunts the public officials involved.

The specter of this virus fills some of our most stalwart souls with unreasoning dread even when it is no immediate threat.

If 80,000 is the population of Danbury, 60 million is the population of California and Texas combined: no small specter , that.

The fatality of war was now hovering over them like a huge black specter .

Lightbody, overturning chair and table, sprang up—recoiling as one recoils before an avenging specter .

Two of them, the latter and Moreau, saw the specter of French sovereignty beckoning them on.

In the midst of their furious, living activity, the specter of death had suddenly appeared.

Meanwhile a Northern politician brought on the specter of Napoleon for a different purpose.

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  1. Specter by Paul Baur

    specter literary definition

  2. Specter by Paul Baur

    specter literary definition

  3. Specter by abigael.lucido17

    specter literary definition

  4. Specter by Parker A

    specter literary definition

  5. Spectre pronunciation and definition

    specter literary definition

  6. Spectre narrative

    specter literary definition


  1. The Spectre


  3. My best attempt at The Black Rabbit Brotherhood. lies of P

  4. meet specter!

  5. the spectre is great

  6. Spectres


  1. Specter Definition & Meaning

    the specter of (something) : something bad that might happen in the future. a nation alarmed/haunted by the specter of famine/war. News of the disease raised the specter of [=made people worry about] a possible plague. SPECTER meaning: 1 : a ghost or spirit of a dead person; 2 : something bad that might happen in the future.

  2. Spectre or Specter

    A specter is a ghost or ghostlike apparition. A specter often portends something unfortunate. The word is also used figuratively as a metaphor for something else: the specter of bankruptcy is a florid way to say impending bankruptcy, for instance. Coriolanus awoke to the horrid specter of his dead wife harassing him from beyond the world of dreams.

  3. Specter Definition & Meaning

    The meaning of SPECTER is a visible disembodied spirit : ghost. How to use specter in a sentence.

  4. How To Use "Specter" In A Sentence: Proper Usage Tips

    3. The Symbolic Specter. - The specter of poverty haunted her childhood, driving her to strive for financial stability and success. In this sentence, "specter" takes on a metaphorical meaning, symbolizing the persistent fear or memory of poverty that influenced the person's drive for financial security. 4.

  5. Specter

    Specter - A haunting or unsettling image, concept, or idea that elicits fear, anxiety, or unease.

  6. specter noun

    Definition of specter noun from the Oxford Advanced American ... These weeks of drought have once again raised the specter of widespread famine. ... Join our community to access the latest language learning and assessment tips from Oxford University Press! 2 (literary) a ghost Was he a specter returning to haunt her? Check pronunciation: specter.

  7. Spectra vs Specter: When To Use Each One? What To Consider

    On the other hand, "specter" might be used to refer to a ghostly apparition or an ominous presence. In this context, "specter" would not be interchangeable with "spectra." Literary Writing: In literary writing, "specter" might be used to refer to a haunting or eerie presence. For example, a character in a horror story might be ...


    SPECTER meaning: 1. US spelling of spectre 2. the idea of something unpleasant that might happen in the future: 3…. Learn more.

  9. Spectral Criticism Literary Theory

    Spectral Criticism Literary Theory. It would be difficult to claim that there is such a thing as a 'school' or even emerging tradition of 'spectral criticism'. Rather, what use of the term might seek to bring together would be a series of images and tendencies which have arisen within critical thinking over the last twenty or so years ...

  10. Definition of specter

    "specter" in the noun sense 1. ghost, shade, spook, wraith, specter, spectre. a mental representation of some haunting experience "he looked like he had seen a ghost" "it aroused


    SPECTER definition: 1. US spelling of spectre 2. the idea of something unpleasant that might happen in the future: 3…. Learn more.

  12. Specter

    specter: 1 n a ghostly appearing figure Synonyms: apparition , fantasm , phantasm , phantasma , phantom , spectre Types: Flying Dutchman the captain of a phantom ship (the Flying Dutchman) who was condemned to sail against the wind until Judgment Day Type of: disembodied spirit , spirit any incorporeal supernatural being that can become ...

  13. Specter

    Ghoul. Ghoul is a relatively recent English word, borrowed from Arabic in the 1700s. Because it's spelled with gh-, it looks vaguely like the Old English words ghost and ghastly (which share a common root in the Old English word gāst, meaning "spirit" or "ghost"). In fact, it comes from the Arabic word ghūl, derived from the verb ...

  14. SPECTER definition and meaning

    2 meanings: If you refer to the specter of something unpleasant, you are referring to something that you are frightened might.... Click for more definitions.

  15. SPECTER Definition & Usage Examples

    Specter definition: . See examples of SPECTER used in a sentence.

  16. Specter

    specter: noun apparition , appearance , eidolon, form , illusion , presence , revenant, shadow , shape , spirit , sprite See also: image , phantom , reflection ...

  17. Specter vs Spectre: Unraveling Commonly Confused Terms

    Let's clarify the definitions. Specter means a ghostly apparition, while spectre is the British spelling of the same word. Both words can also refer to a haunting or disturbing presence. Now, onto the question of which is the proper word to use. The answer is: it depends on where you are. In American English, specter is more commonly used ...

  18. Specters and Circulation of Meaning

    Specters and Circulation of Meaning. August 2020. Comparative Studies of South Asia Africa and the Middle East 40 (2):361-371. DOI: 10.1215/1089201X-8524281.

  19. Specters

    1. a visible incorporeal spirit, esp. one of a terrifying nature; ghost; phantom; apparition.

  20. The Specter of Wall Street: "Bartleby, the Scrivener" and the Language

    Ere introducing the scrivener, as he first appeared to me,'' writes the lawyer in Herman Melville's ''Bartleby, the Scrivener'' (1853), ''it is fit I make somemention of myself, my employés, my business, my chambers, and general surroundings.'' Intriguingly, the lawyer does not say he met Bartleby; instead, Bartleby ''appeared'' to him. Wemight read the word ...

  21. Specter: A curated literary website

    Specter. Founded in July, 2011, Specter published poetry, fiction, and narrative nonfiction of all forms, styles, and genres, written by creatives regardless of race, gender, and sexual identity. In its final iteration, Specter was curated by Mensah Demary, an editor with Catapult, an independent press based in New York.

  22. Specters of Anarchy : Literature and the Anarchist Imagination

    Synthesizing literary criticism with the theory and practice of anarchism, this book offers a re-reading of important literary and political works. Anarchist politics is a major, and growing, contemporary movement, yet the lack of informed analysis has meant that the actual perspectives, desires and visions of this movement remain obscured. ...

  23. The Specter of Interdisciplinarity

    At another point, Perloff reiterates her argument against the instrumental use of lit erature for the purposes of other disciplines by writing: If poetry is the supreme fiction, or, in Ezra Pound's more practical terms, "[n]ews that. stays news," then the study of literature. 190 The Specter of Interdisciplinarity PMLA.