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The English word spleen has two meanings in Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary,

  1. an organ near the stomach which produces and cleans the body's blood.
  2. a feeling of anger and disagreement.

Interestingly, Chinese character 脾, apart from the meaning of an organ, can also mean a feeling of anger in the word 脾气. Is this a coincidence?

I checked 《漢語大詞典》 for 脾气, and found that when interpreted as anger, all the examples are from modern Chinese literatures:

曹禺 《雷雨》第二幕: “哦, 太太怪可憐的, 為什麼老爺回來, 頭一次見太太就發這麼大的脾氣?” 趙樹理 《張來興》:“以前聽說這位老師傅有脾氣, 只是聽說。”
沙汀 《航線》: “那個買辦, 早被頑固的訴苦弄出脾氣來了。”

but when interpreted as disposition, there is examples from earlier literatures, like 《红楼梦》 from Qing dynasty.

人的習性。 亦借指事物的特性。 ▶ 《紅樓夢》第八四回: “都像 寶丫頭 那樣心胸兒、脾氣兒, 真是百裏挑一的。”

No corresponding meaning for spleen in English. Does this count as evidence that the meaning anger of 脾气 may be borrowed English?

In American Heritage Dictionary, there is a meaning labeled as Obsolete that reads: This organ conceived as the seat of emotions or passions. And in 《漢語大詞典》, there is a meaning of 脾气 with examples from literatures dating back to before Christ:

脾臟之氣. 《素問‧生氣通天論》: “是故味過於酸, 肝氣以津, 脾氣乃絕。”

This seems to has something to do with traditional Chinese medicine. Why does spleen is deemed to have something to do with emotion in both English and Chinese?

  • Maybe this belongs on Linguistics @ SE. – user3306356 Nov 21 at 7:28
  • I voted to undelete the post; we can see what kind of answers and responses we get to the question first. If it needs migrating we can do it from here anyway. – user3306356 Nov 21 at 7:49
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    Note that in classical TCM, it is 怒伤肝 (anger harms the liver) and 思伤脾 (worry harms the spleen). – Michaelyus Nov 21 at 12:00
  • I had to look up "spleen" meaning "anger" as it seemed rather unfamiliar to me; Wiktionary lists it as archaic, and it's mostly only used in "vent one's spleen". I don't think I've ever heard it outside this phrase. – Becky 李蓓 Nov 23 at 5:10
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It is my speculation

https://baike.baidu.com/item/%E8%84%BE/20358750

中医解读:

脾气的运动特点是主升举。

脾为太阴湿土,又主运化水液,故喜燥恶湿。

Translation:

Interpretation of Chinese medicine:

The typical movement of the air in the spleen is upward rising

Spleen is a cool, wet, water filtering organ. it likes dry and hot and dislikes wet and cool

Anger is also associate with 燥(dry) and hot . We say a person is easy to anger when his being 燥.

My assumption is: A person being angry because his 脾 is overly active causing 燥 (dryness) inside one's body and dryness cause anger

Related phrase:

  • 發脾气 (being angry)

  • 大脾气 (hot temper)

  • 脾气好 (mild temper)

  • 脾气差 (bad temper)

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Really interesting, and personally I think it's in very strong possibility.

For "脾脏", "脾胃" and "脾" in traditional Chinese medicine are definitely not the "spleen" in modern anatomy. So the "脾气" in ancient Chinese may need to be understand specifically as "the characteristic of the so-called spleen in traditional Chinese concept". "anger" or "personality" or "disposition" is not suitable in such case.

I roughly searched the documents and found the transition seems happened mainly since the late Qing dynasty. That's very close to the time frame of the word "脾" be targeted to the word "spleen". And maybe our ancestors found it's also acceptable that extending "脾气" from specifically describing the characteristic of "脾" to describing the characteristic synthetically of a person. So there is no need to find another Chinese word to match the the second meaning of spleen.

But I cannot eliminate the possibility that it is ancient Chinese who extended the meaning. And it passed pack to English society after modern anatomy transferred into China. And becomes the second meaning of the English word "spleen". If anyone can reference samples in English work of early time, it would be very useful.

  • Actually it was only in Elizabethan times that we have records of English using spleen for anger or capricious character. Traditional Galenic theory (from the Romans) saw the gallbladder (and its yellow bile) as the fluid ("humour") of anger. – Michaelyus Nov 21 at 12:07
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I think the premise is wrong. When I look, I find:

liver associated with anger
spleen associated with overthinking and worry (悲(思)伤脾)

五行中脾属土,心属火。因此,心为脾之母,脾为心之子。
The heart is the spleen's Mum!

怒伤肝,喜伤心,忧伤肺,悲(思)伤脾,恐伤肾。脾开窍于口。其华在唇。在志为思,思虑过度,所欲不遂,可导致气滞、气结,影响脾的运化合升清。在液为涎。

Why does spleen is deemed to have something to do with emotion in both English and Chinese?

Not just the spleen. Our bodies are not machines housing a totally detached intellect. Every part is connected.

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