February 23, 2001
The Gang wrote:
We're curious about the origin of the phrase spill the beans. What does it mean, and why, and where on earth did it come from in the context of, say, "It was a secret till bigmouth Maven spilled the beans...."
Obviously, you already know that this fairly informal phrase means, essentially, 'to disclose a secret'. A more complete definition, like the one given in our Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, adds that the secret is usually revealed by accident or imprudently, and that spilling the beans often ruins some surprise or other plan.
Spill is the core term here, with beans a kind of filler, much as it is in the similar phrase spill it. Spill came into Old English as spillan, 'to kill'. Middle English spillen continued this theme of slaughter and destruction: 'to kill, destroy, shed (blood)'. The theme survives today in the retained phrase spill blood, meaning 'to kill or wound'. The term gradually ameliorated as, between the 10th and the 18th centuries, it came to mean to ruin something, ruin the soul of someone, injure morally, or waste something, like time or effort. The present sense of causing something to fall from or pour out of a container still connotes wasting or ruining the contents.
The OED gives a 1574 quote for spill it meaning 'to divulge, let out': "Although it be a shame to spill it, I will not leaue ['omit'] to say that which..his friends haue said vnto me." This collocation appears to have died out after that until it came into use in the U.S. in the early 20th century: "'Go ahead and spill it,' I says" (Ring Lardner, Gullible's Travels, 1917). Our related phrase, spill the beans, is first attested in 1919: "'Mother certainly has spilled the beans!' thought Stafford in vast amusement" (T. K. Holmes, Man from Tall Timber).
The spilling of beans endures, within and outside the U.S. "... he was a good cop who knew that way he could get [the suspects] to spill the beans" (Associated Press, 2001). Over the years, there have been countless variations of form and meaning, all with spill. You can spill the works/the soup/everything/what you know and your guts. Or you can just plain spill. And although we have tracked spill, we still don't know beans.
A popular folk etymology for spill the beans claims that in ancient Greece, applicants for membership in secret societies were voted upon by having the existing members drop beans into an opaque pottery jar. Those who approved of the potential new member would signal an affirmative vote by stealthily adding a white bean to the jar. A black bean indicated a negative vote. The story goes that on occasion, when the jar was accidentally knocked over, the beans poured out and the vote was revealed prematurely. Somebody had spilled the beans. It's an engaging tale, and beans were in fact once used as ballots, but since the phrase is American and was not seen until 1919, neither the story nor the jar holds water.
Although the precise origin of the idiom spill the beans remains unknown, its vivid yet homey image of sudden revelation has made it a lasting one. The phrase might even have very literal roots: real beans have been known to really spill. A 19th-century agricultural expert named Henry Stephens, in his two-volume treatise called The Farmer's Guide to Scientific and Practical Agriculture (1853), noted (in the section "On Reaping Beans, and Pease, and Tares when Grown for Seed"): "It is of importance to keep bean sheaves always on end, as they then resist most rain; for if allowed to remain on their side, after being blown over by the wind, the least rain soaks them, and the succeeding drought causes the pods to burst and spill the beans upon the ground."
There! "Bigmouth Maven" spills the beans again.
WORDS@RANDOM | The Mavens' Word of the Day | Sensitive Language
How to Choose A Dictionary | Book Search
|Copyright © 1995-2008 Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.