Where The Phrase 'Spill The Beans' Comes From

While gossiping or exposing a secret, imploring someone to "spill the beans" most often means sharing some kind of information that should be otherwise kept discreet. The phrase is rarely used in matters of grave importance, however. A senator rarely "spills the beans" on matters of state, for example, though the saying is quite common in less serious or more whimsical contexts. But where did it come from?

"Spill the beans" is certainly not the only food-related saying used today. Per Smithsonian, other examples include "upper crust," meaning "quality" or something belonging to high society. At one time, the top half of the loaf, or the upper crust, was the most desirable slice. There's also "not worth his salt," dating back to the Roman Empire. In those days, soldiers were paid in salt, so a soldier slacking on his duties was therefore not worth his salt, or salary — the root word for salary in Latin is salt. The origin of "spill the beans," however, takes us even further back in time, to the age of the ancient Greeks.

An ancient voting method

Spilling the beans on the origin of the "spill the beans" saying, it most likely comes from the way the ancient Greeks tallied votes using differently colored beans. According to Reader's Digest, the Greeks — who were themselves responsible for many of our modern Democratic ideals — would vote anonymously: white beans equaling a yes, and black beans signaling a no vote. Count the beans, and the will of the masses was heard.

To spill the beans meant to tip over the jar too soon, or reveal the vote before the counting was complete. This explanation makes a lot of sense given its contemporary usage. The ancient Greek theory is supported by the phrase's first appearance in the American lexicon, per Reader's Digest, where it refers to internal strife within the Republican Party. Similarly, in 1911 it was used to mean "disruption" in a situation that had previously been stable — yet another common context for the phrase.