Have You Ever 'Spilled the Beans?'

    27 January, 2018

    Now, Words and Their Stories from VOA Learning English.

    Beans are a popular food in many countries. From black to red, from kidney to pinto, beans are important in the diet of many cultures. Rich in fiber, protein and nutrients, beans are a healthy, plant-based food.

    So, spilling the beans at home or in a store would not be good. Food is important and does not belong on the floor.

    Spilling the Beans is bad in the kitchen and in conversation. (AP Photo / Matthew Mead)
    Spilling the Beans is bad in the kitchen and in conversation. (AP Photo / Matthew Mead)

    "Spilling the beans" when you communicate with others is also a bad thing.

    When you spill the beans, you share or make public secret information. You don't mean to do it. The secrets just spill out of you.

    However, this expression does not come from cooking beans or the fact that we shouldn't waste food.

    The expression "spill the beans" has been a part of the English language for hundreds of years. Some word historians say the term was first used all the way back in the 1500s.

    If you think that sounds old, you may be surprised to learn that the origin of "spill the beans" goes back to ancient Greece.

    Several websites say this expression comes from one way ancient Greeks voted.

    Back then in some communities, people voted by dropping a white or black bean into a clay urn. If the container fell on its side or broke, the beans would spill out. And this would show everyone the results of the secret vote before all the beans were counted.

    While this origin story is interesting, it does not explain why the term "spill the beans" does not appear in common usage until much later.

    Maybe it is because other expressions with the same meaning were simply more popular. For example, letting the cat out of the bag means the same as spilling the beans. We've explained the meaning of "to let the cat out of the bag" before. But it's always good to hear it again.

    Americans use the verb "spill" in much the same way. Sometimes we simply say, "Spill it!" When you tell others to "spill it," you are asking them to tell you all the details about something immediately.

    This term is very casual and could even sound offensive depending on the situation and expression in your voice. So it's best to use it with close friends, family or when you are joking around.

    Blab is another word meaning "to spill the beans." Blab is not the nicest word, however. A man who blabbers keeps talking and talking, as if he can't keep his mouth closed.

    A blabber mouth is someone who can't keep their mouth shut. Blabber mouths are known for often spilling the beans and for letting more than a few cats out of the bag.

    From among our expressions today -- spill the beans, let the cat out of the bag, and blabber -- the blabber mouth does not always mean someone who gives away secrets. They sometimes just talk too much!

    Well, I don't want to be accused of being a blabber mouth. So, this will be the end this Words and Their Stories from VOA Learning English.

    I'm Anna Matteo.

    Don't start me talking or I'll tell everything I know.

    Don't start me talking I'll spill the beans for sure.

    Right before your eyes, I'll blurt it all open wide.

    Don't start me talking ...

    Do you have an expression like "spill the beans" in your language? Have you ever angered a friend or spoiled a surprise by spilling the beans? Let us know in the Comments Section. Or simply practice using the expressions you heard here today.

    Anna Matteo wrote this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor. The song at the end is Paul Kelly singing "Don't Start Me Talking."


    Words in This Story

    fiber n. plant material that cannot be digested but that helps you to digest other food

    communicate v. to give information about (something) to someone by speaking, writing, moving your hands, etc.

    origin n. the point or place where something begins or is created : the source or cause of something

    clayn. a heavy, sticky material from the earth that is made into different shapes and that becomes hard when it is baked or dried

    urn n. a container that is often shaped like a vase with a closed top

    casual adj. not involving a close or serious relationship

    blab v. to say something that was supposed to be kept secret : to talk too much

    blurt v. to say (something) suddenly and without thinking about how people will react