Vent one’s spleen

Operators are standing by, polishing their revolvers.

Dear Word Detective: I’m sitting in a “Communicating with tact and finesse” conference and our hyper-talkative instructor is regaling us with stories of her forty years of professional life. Several times during the two-day training, she described an emotional outpouring as “venting my spleen.” I’ve heard of someone “spilling their guts,” but never venting their spleen. I’m not sure if this helps, but in 1968 she worked as an operator for the very first 1-800 number in the United States, and she’s from Kansas. — Jeff.

spleen08.pngSo in 1968, while the rest of us were perfecting our tie-dyeing skills and forging new frontiers in backyard agriculture, this poor person was chained to a switchboard answering questions about hearing aids and the like? In Kansas? No wonder she has anger issues. I am, by the way, very proud that, in my many years of working in an office, I managed to avoid every single “motivational” training course my bosses came up with. Eventually management gave up on me (obviously indicating a lack of motivation on their part).

“To vent one’s spleen” means “to express one’s anger,” usually in forceful terms and/or at top volume. “Venting one’s spleen” differs from “spilling one’s guts,” which means simply “to divulge a secret, to tell the whole truth” or “to confess.”

The spleen is, of course, one of those brave little organs nestled in the human midsection (just east of the stomach, in this case), performing those thankless tasks we don’t notice until something goes wrong and our deductible becomes relevant. The spleen’s job is to act as a sort of filter for the blood, but in medieval times, when each bodily organ was thought to be the home of one emotion or another, the spleen was regarded as the seat of melancholy (a mood we now know to reside in the wallet). There was apparently a brief period later on when the spleen was suspected, improbably, of supplying humor and good cheer, but by the late 16th century it was decided that the spleen was the source of rage and ill-temper. Thus “spleen” has for several centuries been a metaphor for “anger,” “resentment” and general crankiness.

“Vent” comes ultimately from the Latin “ventus,” meaning “wind,” and as a verb means “to emit or discharge from a confined space,” as a fan “vents” cooking fumes from a kitchen. The “vent” in “vent one’s spleen” is a metaphorical use of the verb that arose in the 17th century meaning “to relieve or unburden one’s heart or soul,” a sense we still use today (“Don’t mind me, I’m just venting”).

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