TUESDAY TRIVIA: Origin of the Saying ‘Spill the Beans’

To 'spill the beans' often means to give away secret information, but it originated with a different meaning.

Merriam-Webster notes that spilling the beans and spilling one’s guts mean different things; the former is divulging secret information, while the latter refers to the divulging of especially personal information.

What is the origin of the saying “spill the beans?”

Some sources attribute the phrase “spill the beans” to a voting system used in ancient Greece. Council members would vote with either a white bean (yes) or a brown bean (no), and these would secretly be put into a jar so no one would know which way the members voted. It is said that if the collector “spilled the beans” before the vote was complete and the beans were seen, the vote was halted.

However, a few sources, including Merriam-Webster, point out that the phrase didn’t appear until the early 20th century. It was used primarily in reference to sporting events and meant “to spoil or upset something.” For example, on June 7, 1905, an article in the Kentucky Post said, “During the still hours of the night and the early morn, several owners are especially busy right now. They are preparing horses that ought to go to the post cocksure winners, and they hope to spill the beans for everybody who is not let in on the deal.”