This post is one of a series on ‘Germanisms in American English’ and should be read in conjunction with the introductory post here.
The German word Geisterfahrer is a colloquial term for Falschfahrer (literally ‘wrong-driver’). If you look up Falschfahrer on German Wikipedia and switch to English, you’ll find an entry on wrong-way driving, which is described as ‘the act of driving a motor vehicle against the direction of traffic’. Although I’ve often come across the term Geisterfahrer since living in Germany, I’d never once encountered the phrase wrong-way driving before researching for this post. This suggests that the phenomenon is not as commonly discussed in English as it is in German (for whatever reason).
The English term ghost driver is a loan translation of Geisterfahrer, and is usually found in texts discussing wrong-way driving in Germany. In such texts it often appears in quote marks or brackets alongside the original German term (e.g. here, here and here), the assumption being that the average anglophone reader won’t understand it without further explanation.
Despite its rare usage, I have decided to include ghost driver in this series of ‘Germanisms in American English’ because it is classified in several online dictionaries as being American English. Why it should be considered American in particular, I don’t know. The Collins German Dictionary (via Free Dictionary) and dict.cc describe ghost driver as informal/colloquial American English (‘US inf’ and ‘Am. coll.’ respectively).
[To view the Free Dictionary entry in full, you may need to select ‘German / Deutsch’ from the site’s drop-down language menu. Here’s a screenshot of what you should be seeing:]
Urban Dictionary’s top definition of ghost driver does not specify the term as American English, but it is clearly written from a non-European perspective.
However, the fact that I haven’t found ghost driver in any mainstream monolingual English dictionaries, or even in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, suggests that this is at best a niche term in English (American or otherwise) – and probably only familiar to those who have spent time living in Germany.
The earliest occurrence of Geisterfahrer I could find in the German language corpus (DeReKo) of the Institut für Deutsche Sprache was in 1978; and Google Books Ngram Viewer finds the first occurrence in 1974. This suggests that ghost driver (as a loan translation of Geisterfahrer) is almost certainly a late 20th century phenomenon, and therefore unlikely to have been imported during the main period of German mass migration to the US.
1) Literal equivalents of Geisterfahrer / ghost driver exist in other languages, too, as I discovered when I found an entry for conducteur fantôme in Wiktionnaire (French Wiktionary). That entry also refers to equivalents of the term in Danish, Dutch and Swedish – which means that the German origin of ghost driver, while likely, cannot be taken for granted.
2) My recent Google searches for ghost driver have revealed a completely different use of the term: in China, according to English language reports, ghost drivers are car drivers registered with the online transport network Uber, who scare potential customers into cancelling their rides, then pocket the cancellation fee.