Don’t Spill the Beans…

Don’t “spill the beans”, as the saying goes, which means to accidentally or maliciously reveal a secret.

But where did the phrase come from?

The legend behind the phrase suggests that the saying comes from a Greek origin. When a decision was needed, a vote was held with dry beans dropped into a jar. White beans meant yes and black beans meant no. But if the counter dropped the jar and a black bean was seen, the vote was ruined.

No research has suggested, however, that this is actually where the phrase came from, since it only started to appear in the early 20th century in the U.S.

“Spilled the beans” showed up at first in newspaper sports columns where editors could have some fun with their titles. One of the first examples says “KINGSTELLE SPILLED THE BEANS”. This doesn’t, in fact, mean that someone revealed an especially juicy secret, but instead refers to a horse race. The horse Kingstelle did better in the race than people expected. Here “spill” uses the meaning “upset” or “shake up”, meaning Kingstelle shook up people’s expectations.P1010049

In other early uses, “spill the beans” meant making a mistake that lead to defeat.

And in an example closer to our modern interpretation, a 1908 newspaper edition wrote, “Tawney, when he came to congress, wasn’t welcomed within the big tent. He had to wait around on the outside…He just walked off the reservation, taking enough insurgent Republicans with him to spill the beans for the big five.”

But where does the “beans” part of “spill the beans” come from? No one seems to know. People say many varieties on the word “spill” with the same meaning, and beans just happened to get the reputation.

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