Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Olivia from Blenheim. Olivia Wonders, “Why do people have secrets?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Olivia!
We were wandering through the Wonderopolis farmyard the other day when we overheard an interesting conversation between the animals in the barn:
Cow: Beans? Where? I'm hungry.
Sheep: I mean who let the cat out of the bag about the surprise party?
Cat: Huh? What bag?
Sheep: It's just a figure of speech. Who told the chicken about the surprise party?
Chicken: Oh! Why didn't you just ask? It was the pig.
Sheep: I should've known it! He always squeals!
We weren't able to stick around to hear the pig's excuse or whether the news made it to Farmer Ted before the party. However, their conversation did get us to thinking about what a curious phrase "spill the beans" is.
As you've probably gathered from the animals' conversation in the barn, the phrase "spill the beans" means to reveal a secret, often unintentionally. Some historians believe the phrase derives from an ancient voting system used in Greece.
Long ago, the ancient Greeks voted on issues by placing either a white bean (yes) or a black bean (no) in a jar. Votes had to be unanimous, so if someone "spilled the beans" during the process, everyone could see whether any black beans had been cast.
Although this sounds like a plausible origin story, the problem is that the phrase "spill the beans" didn't begin to appear in the United States until the early 20th century. Some of its first uses were in the context of horse racing, and it was used in a way similar to "upset the apple cart."
By 1920, the phrase had evolved to its current meaning. Linguists tend to focus on the verb "spill," which meant "kill" in Old English (as in "spill blood"). The word changed over time, meaning to cause damage by the 14th century and to divulge or reveal by the 16th century.
So it's easy to see how "spill" found its way into the phrase, but what about the "beans"? Some believe "beans" might be used to represent anything that has little value. Others think it could stem from the British use of "beans" to mean money, since early examples in the realm of horse racing could've referred to bettors losing money on races.
We may never truly know exactly how "spill the beans" came to mean to reveal a secret. One other theory holds that it resulted from a guessing game played at fairs in small rural towns in the U.S.
Contestants would be asked to guess the number of beans in a large jar. When the time came to reveal the big secret, the beans would be spilled from the jar, so they could be counted. Is this how the phrase got started? Maybe! If anyone really knows, he or she certainly hasn't spilled the beans yet!