Why do we say ‘spill the beans’?
Why do we use the phrase to mean 'divulge' or 'reveal'? It's time to spill the beans…
As the phrase is primarily recorded in 20th-century America, it is probably a simple extension of ‘spill’ – which has been used to mean ‘divulge’ or ‘reveal’ since as early as the 16th century – but there is a long-lasting folk etymology, which goes back much further in history.
A rudimentary system of voting in Ancient Greece, the birthplace of democracy, was to use beans. Voters would be given both a white and a black or brown bean, one of which would be placed in a jar. White beans were a ‘yes’ vote, while the black or brown stood for ‘no’.
The idea was to keep the ballot secret, so the jar wouldn’t be upended and the beans counted until the end – unless the jar was accidentally knocked over early and the beans spilled.
Enhance the festive season with a subscription to BBC History Magazine + David Mitchell's latest masterpiece UNRULY - signed and hardback!
As a print subscriber you will also get FREE access to HistoryExtra.com worth £34.99