MUNDANE MYSTERIES: What’s With The Whole “Spill The Beans” Thing?

(*in best Dwight Schrute voice) FALSE: the phrase “spill the beans” did not originate when Kevin Malone dropped his huge pot of chili in season five of The Office. People actually started talking about spilling the beans more than 2000 years ago!

Back in ancient Greece, they had a voting method that involved uncooked beans. If you wanted to vote “yes” on a particular issue, you’d place a white bean in the voting jar; if you wanted to vote “no”, you’d use a black bean. The jar wasn’t see-through, so, since the votes were meant to be kept secret until the final tally, someone who accidentally happened to knock that jar over in the middle of voting was both literally “spilling the beans” & figuratively spilling the beans about the results.

While we don’t know for sure exactly when the phrase spill the beans actually came into use, we do know that people have used the word spill to mean “divulge” or “tell” at least since the 16th century. The earliest known reference in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a letter written by Spanish historian Antonio de Guevara written prior to his death in 1545.

Writers started pairing “spill” with “beans” in the 20th century, with the 1st known mention by Thomas K. Holmes in his 1919 novel The Man From Tall Timber: “‘Mother certainly has spilled the beans!’ thought Stafford in vast amusement.”

Basically, it’s still a mystery why people decided that beans were the perfect food to represent spilled secrets. But, as for whether you imagine hard, raw Greek beans or tender, seasoned beans from Kevin Malone’s ill-fated chili, that’s entirely up to you.

If you’ve got a Mundane Mystery you’d like me to “spill the beans” about, send me a message via social media (@AndyWebbRadioVoice), or shoot me an email at andy@wfre.com.