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?

  • 2
    Probably just coincidence (as should be our default assumption when we find a single correspondance between unrelated languages.) It's very common to associate feelings with body organs, and as there are more language families than organs in the body then because of the birthday problem we should expect coincidental parallels. – curiousdannii Nov 21 '19 at 8:21
  • this mantra of the unrelated language needs to go. but it won't. so why bother with the ignorant know-it-alls. oh, maybe because it's worthwhile to at least try. – vectory Nov 21 '19 at 18:44
  • Reading "spleen" is misleading. It might as well mean liver, if I recall correctly (it's not that I was there then). – vectory Nov 21 '19 at 18:58
  • See zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E8%84%BE_(%E8%87%9F%E8%85%91); "spleen" is not the correct translation, 脾 in TCM is functionally equivalent to a pancreas. – dROOOze Nov 24 '19 at 11:17

This probably goes back to the ancient Greek conceptions about illness and medecine. They have diffused through the world and also reached China.

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  • 2
    If the association of the spleen with passions is really traceable to Old Chinese then it could hardly have come from Greek.. – fdb Nov 21 '19 at 17:34
  • 2
    Why do you suppose the origin were ancient Greek? – vectory Nov 21 '19 at 18:55

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