Q&A: Spill the beans

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?

A: Huh?

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.

Q: Okay.

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?

A: Unlikely.

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!


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