For the last months, I have left English on the back burner. My attention was based on taking pictures of flowers—basically. Today I decided it was time to set my eyes on English again.
As usual, I like to learn new idioms. They are fascinating to me, because the meaning is not exactly in the words themselves, but the meaning people give those words. This time I’ll concentrate on the idiom, “spilling the beans”.
The idiomatic expression came to my attention, while listening to the morning news in which Donald Trump and Ted Cruz were having a tug-of-war about their spouses during their furious and intense political campaign. It is highly probably you heard about this violent exchange of mutual accusations.
Donald Trump threatened Cruz, that if he kept on posting pictures of his wife posing as a a model with almost no clothes on, “he would spill the beans.”. Now what is that idiom all about? I’m sure it has nothing to do with beans, I mean the ones you eat.
“Spilling the beans” means revealing secret information unintentionally or indiscreetly. (Trump fulfill threat to “spill the beans” on Heide Cruz. To give away a secret or a surprise. To let secret information become known. In this colloquial expression, first recorded in 1919, spill means “divulge”, a usage dating from the 1500s.
Origins of this original idiom:
The derivation of this expression is sometimes said to be a voting system used in ancient Greece. The story goes that white beans indicated positive votes and black beans negative. Votes had to be unanimous, so if the collector ‘spilled the beans’ before the vote was complete and a black bean was seen, the vote was halted.
The earliest uses of ‘spill the beans’ come from the USA. The meaning of the phrase was then something like ‘spoil the beans’ or ‘upset the applecart’, which harks back to the supposed Greek knocking over of a bean container. The first example I can find is from The Stevens Point Journal, June 1908:
Tawney, when he came to congress, wasn’t welcomed within the big tent. He had to wait around on the outside. Then the blacksmith [Jim Tawney] got busy. He just walked off the reservation, taking enough insurgent Republicans with him to spill the beans for the big five.
We have ‘spill’, meaning ‘divulge’, but why beans? Well, it could have been almost anything. In fact, there are several ‘spill the’ variants – ‘spill the soup’, ‘spill your guts’, or simply, just ‘spill’.
And now you know another interesting idiom of the fascinating English language. The language that I love—and hate at the same time.