Where Does the Phrase “Spill the Beans” Come From?

If you "spilled the beans," you revealed information that was meant to be kept private. But why a can of beans?

If you’ve ever been told a secret and then (either accidentally or in a spiteful way) revealed that secret, or spoiled a surprise, you’ve probably heard the phrase “spill the beans.” But why beans, and why were they spilled? These are the origins of more common idioms you use all the time.

To reveal a secret

The phrase “spill the beans” means to reveal information that was meant to be kept private. But why a can of beans, and why do we still use this expression in modern times when there isn’t actually a can of beans present? It’s not uncommon to have food referenced in a phrase, like “a piece of cake” and “a hot potato.” These are 13 of the most frequently used idioms in the English language.

Ancient Greece

There are a few possible explanations for where “spill the beans” came from. One explanation dates back to ancient Greece, when people would use beans to vote anonymously. White beans were used for positive votes, and for negative votes, black beans or other dark-colored beans were used. These votes were cast in secret, so if someone knocked over the beans in the jar—whether by accident or intentionally—then that means they “spilled the beans” and revealed the results of the votes prematurely.

Modern times

Having the expression date back to ancient Greece is nice in theory, but where does it show up in modern times? Let’s look at the meaning behind the word “spill.” You know the word from when you accidentally spill something on the floor, and from the saying “no use crying over spilled milk” (which is just one of these common sayings that are actually total nonsense).

But since the 16th century, when used as a verb, “spill” has also meant “divulge” or “let out.” One instance of this use of “spill” in the 1500s is from Edward Hellowes’ Guevara’s Familiar Epistles. The passage reads: “Although it be a shame to spill it, I will not leaue to say that which… his friends haue said vnto me.”

There may be a darker interpretation of the “let out” meaning of the word “spill.” In the 14th century, another meaning of “spill” was “kill,” and thus “spill blood” was in use during that time period. Here are some more words and phrases that are probably way older than you think.

But what connects the dots between “spill” and “beans”? According to the Phrasefinder, an early example of “spill the beans” has been found in the United States from The Stevens Point Journal in June 1908:

“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.”

“Spill the beans” in this instance was akin to “upset the applecart” or “spoil the beans,” a nod to the voting system in ancient Greece. Similarly, according to the Phrasefinder, another instance of “spill the beans” in the 20th century was found in October 1911 in The Van Wert Daily Bulletin: “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’.” Shortly thereafter, the phrase “spill the beans” came to mean “upset a previously stable situation by talking out of turn,” which is similar to the modern use of the phrase.

Other things that spill

The next time you hear the phrase “spill the beans,” you’ll know what it means and where it came from. There are a variety of things you can spill besides beans, such as your guts; or you can pour out your soul to someone. Next, make sure you know these 70 words and phrases most people use all wrong.

Madeline Wahl
Madeline Wahl is a Digital Associate Editor/Writer at RD.com. Previously, she worked for HuffPost and Golf Channel. Her writing has appeared on HuffPost, Red Magazine, McSweeney's, Pink Pangea, The Mighty, and Yahoo Lifestyle, among others. More of her work can be found on her website: www.madelinehwahl.com