Q From Martin Schell: An Indonesian friend fluent in English asked me what spill the beans means and how it originated. It’s easy to understand spill as revealing a secret, but why beans?
A The key word is indeed spill, which has always had a negative aura about it. In Old English it meant to kill and in the twelfth century to shed blood (which is why we still have the fixed phrase to spill blood). By the fourteenth century it had softened to mean causing damage or waste, from which evolved the specific idea of letting a liquid accidentally escape from a container. Much later it took on a figurative sense of being thrown out of a moving vehicle.
Spill the beans starts to appear in the US early in the twentieth century. In its first decade it varied in its meaning and settled on our current one only in the 1920s.
Early examples are in reports of horse racing. This is the first example that I’ve so far come across:
KINGSTELLE SPILLED THE BEANS
Everyone fancied that the fifth race was a two-horse one between Nearest and Audiphone, who were held at 4 to 5 and 8 to 5 respectively. Kingstelle, a 10-to-1 shot, broke it up. She laid away from the pace and came along in the stretch, and won, handily, a real nice race.
St Louis Republic (St Louis, Missouri), 6 May 1903.
Since the horse did better than expected, this might seem to challenge the idea of a spill being a bad thing, but the headline writer is saying that expectations have been upset, a figurative extension of spill. In the following years the idiom spread beyond racetracks, by 1908 being used of boxing and by 1910 of baseball. In that game it came to mean a blunder that leads to defeat:
In the eighth it looked like Vernon surely would overcome the Seals’ lead and win the game, but some boneheaded base running and poor judgment on the coaching lines spilled the beans.
Los Angeles Herald, 3 Jun. 1910.
An article in the Tacoma Times in March 1913 defines it like this: “If we descend to the vulgar language of the street ... ‘Spilling the beans’ has much the same meaning as ‘upsetting the apple cart.’” Being considered slang may explain why it took some time to become mainstream. Most appearances were confined to the sports pages, which had a licence to adopt language that was considered unsuitable for other parts of the paper.
Our modern sense starts to appear around 1910 as an extension of the sports sense into upsetting a situation by speaking out. An early case on record concerns a ticket scalping scandal at a New York baseball club:
The entire affair is again bottled up just at a time when the American League president said he would spill the beans and expose the rascality of the whole business.
Bisbee Daily Review (Bisbee, Arizona), 24 Dec. 1911.
Politics being a rough old game, it’s in news reports of events in that domain that we start to see a broader public use of the idiom. It was widely publicised in a comment from a witness during a famous court case of January 1914 about corruption and this seems to have broken the implicit ban on its use outside sport.
To answer the original question, there’s some doubt over the meaning of beans. It might just mean something of little value — not worth a bean is recorded from the end of the thirteenth century and hill of beans from the US around 1860. British English used bean to mean money from early in the nineteenth century, but the first recorded examples in American English appear after the first use of spill the beans. However, it’s very likely that it was in use then and it could explain the earliest sense, of a horse upsetting expectations in a race, since gamblers would have lost money by betting on the wrong horse.
The idiom has appeared in various other forms since, including spill the dirt, spill the dice, spill the dope and spill the works. There’s also spill it by itself, with the sense “tell me your sensational gossip immediately”.