Saturday, March 07, 2015

Vent Your Spleen

Brad Schnaidt wrote, “Can you explain the source/origin of the phrase ‘vent your spleen’? Does it have something to do with the old (and currently being revived) medical treatment of blood-letting? Thanks for your help, and I am an avid listener and fan of your Tuesday show on WTCM.”

Thanks for listening to the show and for taking the time to write. There are a couple of murky areas involved in answering your question.

First of all, I gather that there may still be some medical uncertainty about the exact purpose of the spleen. It stores fresh blood, it destroys worn-out blood cells, it filters foreign substances, and it produces products to fight infection. And yet, if the spleen is removed, other organs easily take over all these functions.

In earlier centuries, it was common to assign emotions and traits to various organs and bodily substances, usually based on very slender evidence. For the ancient Greeks, the four humors (fluids in the body) explained feelings and moods. Blood was responsible for joy, optimism, and affection. Phlegm caused passivity, lethargy, and emotionalism. Yellow bile provoked anger, irritability, and jealousy. Black bile made a person melancholy and withdrawn. To the Greeks, therefore, an outburst of anger would more properly be called venting the liver. As long as the humors were balanced, the person was healthy. If one prevailed, the balance was tipped.

By the 14th century, the spleen had become the source of melancholy:

·      The Splen is to Malencolie Assigned for herbergerie.”
[1390, J. Gower Confessio Amantis III. 99]

By Shakespeare’s day, hot temper, violent anger, irritation, and peevishness had been assigned to the spleen:

·      “Out you madhedded ape, a weazel hath not such a deale of spleene as you are tost with.” [1598,  Shakespeare Henry IV, Pt. 1 ii. iv. 76]
·      “All this...Could not take truce with the vnruly spleene Of Tybalt deafe to peace.”
[1599, Shakespeare Romeo & Juliet iii. i. 156]
·      O preposterous And frantike outrage, ende thy damned spleene.”
[1599, Shakespeare Romeo & Juliet iii. i. 156]  

Since his day, the spleen has taken over exclusively as the alleged source of anger. To vent one’s spleen is to forcefully release vapors poetically residing in that organ. But why not the thymus, the liver, the pituitary, or the prostate? There seems to be no good answer. We’re not in the realm of logic here.

Listen to Mike’s program in real time every Tuesday morning, 9:10 - 10:00 a.m. EST, by going to and clicking on Listen Now. You’ll also find about a month’s worth of podcasts there under The Ron Jolly Show.


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