The spleen

The spleen (from Greek σπλήνsplḗn[1]) is an organ found in virtually all vertebrates. Similar in structure to a large lymph node, it acts primarily as a blood filter.

The spleen plays important roles in regard to red blood cells (also referred to as erythrocytes) and the immune system.[2] It removes old red blood cells and holds a reserve of blood, which can be valuable in case of hemorrhagic shock, and also recycles iron. As a part of the mononuclear phagocyte system, it metabolizes hemoglobin removed from senescent erythrocytes. The globin portion of hemoglobin is degraded to its constitutive amino acids, and the heme portion is metabolized to bilirubin, which is removed in the liver.[3]

The spleen synthesizes antibodies in its white pulp and removes antibody-coated bacteria and antibody-coated blood cells by way of blood and lymph node circulation. A study published in 2009 using mice found that the spleen contains, in its reserve, half of the body’s monocytes within the red pulp.[4] These monocytes, upon moving to injured tissue (such as the heart), turn into dendritic cellsand macrophages while promoting tissue healing.[4][5][6] The spleen is a center of activity of the mononuclear phagocyte system and can be considered analogous to a large lymph node, as its absence causes a predisposition to certain infections.[7]

In humans, the spleen is brownish in color and is located in the left upper quadrant of the abdomen.[3][8]

The word spleen comes from the Ancient Greek σπλήν (splḗn), and is the idiomatic equivalent of the heart in English, i.e. to be good-spleened (εὔσπλαγχνος, eúsplankhnos) means to be good-hearted or compassionate.[23]

In English the word spleen was customary during the period of the 18th century. Authors like Richard Blackmore or George Cheyne employed it to characterise the hypochondriacal and hysterical affections.[24][25] William Shakespeare, in Julius Caesar uses the spleen to describe Cassius’ irritable nature.

Must I observe you? must I stand and crouch
Under your testy humour? By the gods
You shall digest the venom of your spleen,
Though it do split you; for, from this day forth,
I’ll use you for my mirth, yea, for my laughter,
When you are waspish.[26]

In French, “splénétique” refers to a state of pensive sadness or melancholy. It has been popularized by the poet Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867) but was already used before in particular to the Romantic literature (19th century). The word for the organ is “rate“.

The connection between spleen (the organ) and melancholy (the temperament) comes from the humoral medicine of the ancient Greeks. One of the humours (body fluid) was the black bile, secreted by the spleen organ and associated with melancholy. In contrast, the Talmud (tractate Berachoth 61b) refers to the spleen as the organ of laughter while possibly suggesting a link with the humoral view of the organ. In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England, women in bad humor were said to be afflicted by the spleen, or the vapours of the spleen. In modern English, “to vent one’s spleen” means to vent one’s anger, e.g. by shouting, and can be applied to both males and females. Similarly, the English term “splenetic” is used to describe a person in a foul mood.


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