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What 'Spill the Beans' Means

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Hey, Language Lovers!

Have you ever spilled the beans before? It's not something you want to do at summer camp or anywhere really. This seemingly simple phrase, used when someone accidentally blurts out a well-kept secret, easily rolls off the tongue. But have you ever wondered why we say it to mean that somebody let something slip? Let’s delve into the interesting history behind the saying 'Spill the Beans' and figure out why we use this peculiar phrase.

You don't want to spill the beans at summer camp or anywhere.

Ancient Greek Voting Beans

Back in ancient Greece, beans were used as a voting tool so voters could remain anonymous. White beans represented positive votes, while black beans, were negative ones. The votes were all hush-hush--the results locked away in a container. If someone knocked over the container, the votes would be seen early and give away the results. The person responsible was said to have ‘spilled the beans’.

Stevens Point Journal Drop

Now, let's fast-forward to the early 20th century in the United States. We can spot an early example of this phrase being printed in a June 1908 issue of The Stevens Point Journal. In that context, it meant something like "upset the applecart" or "spoil the beans," a nod to ancient Greece's voting system.

Van Wert Daily Bulletin Reinforces

Then, another instance in October 1911, The Van Wert Daily Bulletin provided another instance of this saying being used. Here, the phrase started to imply "upsetting a previously stable situation by talking out of turn,"—that’s pretty much how we use it today.

It was just a few months back that I wrote a Blog post about the origin of the phrase “Let the Cat Out of the Bag”—very similar to today’s “spill the beans” saying. Learn where that phrase came from by clicking here. And next time you find yourself inadvertently sharing a secret or ‘spilling the beans,’ think back to those ancient Greeks and their voting legumes. Thanks for reading, Camp Folks! And, as always, Happy Camping!


- John

Posted in Adage Origin


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