Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week you can count on us to spill the beans…
Q: Hi AWC, I have a secret to tell you.
A: Go on then, spill the beans.
Q: How did you know that was my secret?
Q: My secret was that I have no idea where the phrase “spill the beans” comes from. Please don’t tell anyone; it’s very embarrassing.
A: Um, sure. So, would you like to know?
Q: I would. Can you help?
A: Yes. Like many idioms, this one has a few theories. The first points to something that used to happen in Greece a long time ago.
Q: Oooh oooh, was it when Sandy dressed up in leather at the graduation fair and Danny sang that you’re the one that I want, ooh honey?
A: No, that was the movie Grease. We’re talking about ancient Greece.
Q: Tell me more, tell me more.
A: Well back then, people would vote for things by placing black or white coloured beans into an opaque container.
Q: Did they have people standing outside with flyers showing you how to apply your bean preferences?
A: Probably not.
A: Essentially, these were secret ballots. So if you tipped over the container – thus “spilling the beans” – everyone would know the votes.
Q: And the people counting the votes – they went on to become bean counters, right?
A: Most probably.
Q: And then the car flew up into the sky…
A: No, that’s Grease again…
Q: Ah yes. So it has also nothing to do with coffee beans and their effect on telling gossipy secrets at mothers groups?
Q: (But seriously though, did Kirsten tell you what happened to Libby?)
A: (Tell us after.)
Q: Okay. So, that’s it then? Greek origins and case closed!
A: Well that’s the main theory, but it remains a mystery as to why the phrase didn’t show itself in print until the start of the 20th century.
Q: Oh, that’s quite recent.
A: Yep. It actually first appeared in the US originally meaning to spoil or disrupt a situation, especially in horse racing or sporting contexts. For example, the unfavoured team “spilled the beans” by beating the home side. It wasn’t until a decade later that we finally saw it resemble the present-day meaning of revealing a secret.
Q: And it’s “bean” that way ever since! Haha!
A: That was terrible.
Q: Yeah, I’ve “bean” told that before.
A: Please stop.
Q: “Bean” nice chatting with ya…
If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!