At some point, we have all received the warning not to “spill the beans” after finding out confidential information. Have you ever wondered what’s the meaning and origin of this phrase? Or, perhaps when to use it in writing? In this article, we will discuss it thoroughly.
The phrase “Spill the beans” means to divulge a secret or reveal something ahead of time. To let confidential information become known. We use it in writing to communicate when a person has leaked information, whether on purpose or by accident.
Origin of the phrase
Most people agree that this phrase dates back to ancient Greece and its voting process. People would use different colored beans to vote anonymously. They used white beans for positive votes and black/brown beans for negative votes and inserted them in an opaque jar. If somebody accidentally knocked over the jar, they would reveal the results prematurely.
An idiom is a common phrase that has no specific meaning without context. Its meaning is constructed and understood because of its widespread use. For example, “rain cats and dogs, “see the light,” etc.
The origin dating back to ancient Greece is a reasonable story. But, the usage of this phrase had a part in horse racing back in the early 20th century. It was used to describe causing an upset.
On November 25, 1902, The St. Louis Republic newspaper posted a story about the results from a horse race:
“Then we put Battiste up later and got down. He listened to Kiley’s advice. But in some manner, the field ran around and over her so that she was shut in, cut off, and lost. So the beans were spilled.”
By 1907, the phrase had expanded beyond horse-racing and was then being used in baseball. The Democrat-Sentinel published a story about this. You can read more details at Origin of “spill the beans” – English Language & Usage Stack Exchange.
As time went on, the phrase was used in politics to indicate “upsetting a previously stable situation by talking out of turn.” This can be witnessed in one of the 1911 editions of 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.”
This could be the earliest published use of the phrase with a meaning closest to the current one. Since then, it has become what we call an idiom.
How People Use The Phrase
The proper use of this idiom is crucial. You should consider this to be an informal expression that may be interpreted as slang. Stay away from this phrase at your next work meeting.
To give you an idea, when there is a surprise celebration for a coworker, and you are inviting all the guests, you might say:
- “Chad, we will celebrate our supervisor’s birthday tomorrow in the dining area. But please don’t spill the beans on this one, like you did last time we had a party.”
If you’re on trial, your lawyer might not want an unreliable witness in your case:
- “We cannot put him in court, or he would spill the beans.”
Now, imagine you just broke the beloved staff coffee machine and Mrs. Rogers, the office tattletale, walked in at the moment it broke:
- “You can count on Mrs. Rogers to spill the beans about the accident in the kitchen.”
Synonyms Of “Spill The Beans”
- If you thought that “spill the beans” was a strange way to express that secret information was revealed, then check out these other ways to say the phrase.
- “Let the cat out of the bag,” the most plausible origin for this phrase, comes from Britain’s Royal Navy. The sailors’ superiors would often use a whip with nine knotted cotton cords to hit their backs if they acted out of line. This whip was called “cat o’ nine tails” and was stored inside a red cloth bag.
Another common origin story for this idiom relates to the old markets where animals were sold in bags. Sellers would often substitute pigs by placing cats inside the bags when the customer was not looking. The seller would deceive the buyer by instructing them not to open the bag there. The customer had to wait until they were at home or in a safe space away from the market.
We can see that both “spill the beans” and “let the cat out of the bag” have negative connotations. They also have somewhat negative origins. In both cases, there is always somebody that is impacted by the beans or the cat.
- “Let (something) slip” this phrase could be used in two different ways. First, it could be used as a direct synonym for “spill the beans.” But, it can also mean that an opportunity was missed. In this other instance, it would be worded “slide by” or “let slip through one’s fingers.”
- “My boss did not let the cat out of the bag about the deal until we were all in the meeting room.”
- “She let the cat out of the bag and finally told her partner about her plans of studying abroad.”
- “Never, ever tell Marilyn a secret – she always lets the cat out of the bag.”
- “We could have won the trophy, but we let it slip through our fingers.”
- “My sister let news about my engagement out in front of our parents!”
Antonyms Of “Spill The Beans”
- “Clam up” this phrase means to stop talking. To avoid revealing information. It was first seen in the 1910s and refers to a clam that shuts itself tight when confronted with a predator.
- “Put a sock in it” is used as a rude way to tell somebody to stop talking.
- “Shut up,” this can also be used as an impolite way to tell somebody to stop talking. Be aware that this is very informal and can be offensive.
- “Hold one’s tongue.”
- “The little girl clammed up when the doctor came into the room.”
- “Put a sock in it, all of you. I need to tell you something.”
- “Who do you think you are, telling me to shut up?”
- “They were talking about something but clammed up the minute my father entered.”
- “Yesterday, I had an argument with my little brother. Since he cannot stand it when I am right, he ended up telling me to shut up!”
- “There are times when it is wiser to hold your tongue than to point out when someone is wrong.”
More Interesting Idioms
The idiom “spill the beans” began with a literal meaning. It is believed that it started when the ancient Greeks used beans during the electoral process. If somebody knocked over the jar that contained them, that person’s vote would be revealed ahead of time.
In its modern application, we can find references outside of this country and context. In 1902, the people from Missouri in the United States were using it in horse racing. In this time, it took on the meaning of “cause an upset” during the race.
A display found during this year illustrates the case of a horse rider that followed somebody else’s advice and lost the race. The beans were spilled for sure after this occurred.
We can also see Americans use the idiom in baseball starting in 1907. By this year, it still had the same meaning as when it was used in horse racing. This is evidenced by a baseball game lost due to a mistake caused by one of the players. But, by 1911, American politicians welcomed the phrase. They started using it to describe a situation that is disturbed after somebody speaks unfavorably.
In one version of The Van Wert Daily Bulletin, we hear about Secretary Fisher, of the President’s cabinet. Secretary Fisher proceeded to ‘spill the beans’ after being called to the front.
After carrying out this study, I suggest the average person carefully considers the phrase “spill the beans” before using it. Its meaning must not be tangled with the past, but it should always be taken into consideration.
This phrase is no longer used in professional settings, such as politics, but could still be categorized as a negative phrase. The beans themselves are never a bad thing, but there will always be someone that lacks self-control and makes them a bad thing. This negative connotation is given after a previously peaceful situation is disturbed. This is usually the result of an individual not showing restraint.
It is important to remember this categorization, as with any of the synonyms for this idiom, someone might be taken back. Consider this if we are discussing the unreliable witness or the office tattletale.
Shawn Manaher is the founder and CEO of The Content Authority. He’s one part content manager, one part writing ninja organizer, and two parts leader of top content creators. You don’t even want to know what he calls pancakes.