Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Wednesday's Random Slang-o-rama: Spill the beans

 I think most folks know that to spill the beans means to "disclose a secret or reveal something prematurely." (The Free Dictionary) But do you know when (and how) the phrase originated? Well, guess what. Even the experts aren't certain.

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According to a post in The Phrase Finder, some think it has to do with a voting system used in ancient Greece:

The story goes that white beans indicated positive votes and black beans negative. Votes had to be unanimous, so if the collector "spilled the beans" before the vote was complete and a black bean was seen, the vote was halted. 

However, the post goes on to note that the idiom first popped up in the early 20th century in the United States, so its origin is probably more recent as well. According to The Phrase Finder, the phrase originally meant something akin to "spoil the beans" or "upset the applecart" and appeared in a June 1908 issue of The Stevens Point Journal (which I can't access to verify, alas) as follows: 

Tawney, when he came to congress, wasn't welcomed within the big tent. He had to wait around on the outside. Then the blacksmith [Jim Tawney] got busy. He just walked off the reservation, taking enough insurgent Republicans with him to spill the beans for the big five.

In October 1911, The Phrase Finder found the idiom used to mean "upset a previously stable situation by talking out of turn" in The Van Wert Daily Bulletin (again, I can't access the archives of this paper to verify):

Finally Secretary Fisher, of the President's cabinet, who had just returned from a trip to Alaska, was called by Governor Stubbs to the front, and proceeded, as one writer says, to "spill the beans." 

So, ancient Greece or early 20th-century US of A? You choose! The Online Etymological Dictionary also places first use of this phrase in the 20th century, giving a 1910 date for use in the sense of "spoil the situation" and 1919 for meaning "reveal a secret." 

 And for those of you who are thinking, "Isn't there a game involving spilling beans and such?" Yes indeed. Don't Spill the Beans was a board game in the 1960s, with newer versions since then. Here's a link to a Board Game Archaeology video on YouTube showing the 1967 game and how it's played.

"Come come, dearie... Spill the beans, dish the dirt."
"This is the 19th century and I have no idea what you're talking about."
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2 comments:

Camille Minichino said...

I love the sketch, so I think I'll go with that interpretation!

Ann Parker said...

Hi Camille :-) I love this image too! In fact, I'd love to have some postcards featuring it. Hmmmm. If I can figure out how to do that, you'll get the first one!