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What does "Spill the Beans" Mean?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The English idiom “spill the beans” means “to divulge a secret.” People sometimes use this idiom to describe a situation in which someone deliberately and maliciously reveals a secret, and the idiom may be used to refer to an accidental revelation. The phrase is often used like “let the cat out of the bag,” another idiom which refers to releasing something which was previously hidden.

The origins of this idiom are rather interesting, for people who find themselves intrigued by word origins. According to folk etymology, the idiom is related to the system of voting used in Ancient Greece, in which people cast black and white beans or stones as secret ballots. Tipping over the jar or basket used to collect votes before the outcome was decided would have been a classic case of spilling the beans. Alas, although this explanation is rather charming, it is likely not correct.

Another case of folk etymology claims that the idiom refers to spilling beans while planting, causing a crop to grow irregularly. This explanation is even less likely, given that there is no clear connection between causing crops to grow erratically and releasing information which is supposed to be secret, unless the spilled beans are themselves meant to be secret, and the bean shoots give the secret away.

In fact, “spill the beans” first appeared in the United States in the early 20th century, suggesting that the idiom is of fairly recent origin, although “spill” in reference to letting something out dates to the 1500s. The beans in this idiom may just be filler, given the variants like “spill your guts” for telling secrets, or just “spill” for talking about confidential material; beans are a well-known item, and many people have spilled beans while cooking at some point in their lives, so the idiom creates a vivid image. This idiom is most commonly used in American English, reflecting its origins.

The phrase has entered the main stream so thoroughly that it pops up in a variety of places. It is often used as a folksy colloquialism in public interest stories, like profiles of small town policemen who are adept at getting suspects to spill the beans, and it is also utilized as a slangy familiarity in some television series. People may also use it in casual conversation, especially when they want to tease someone for spilling the beans about something which was meant to be a surprise.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By seag47 — On Aug 22, 2012

I think that spilling the beans refers more to something accidental than on purpose. In the literal sense, if you have spilled beans, or anything, for that matter, then you didn't do it intentionally.

Any time that I hear this phrase in reference to someone having revealed a secret, it has been used in such a way to let me know that the person said something aloud without realizing that they were not supposed to say that. Once it dawned upon them, it was too late. The beans had already been spilled.

By discographer — On Aug 21, 2012

I don't get why this idiom is "spill the beans" either. Why beans? It's so random.

I agree that the emphasis is on the "spill" part and not the beans. I've also heard people say "spill the soup" before and that means the same thing. Soup actually makes more sense than beans though.

I like the explanation about the Greek voting system too. I realize that might not be the true origin, but it definitely makes more sense!

By bluedolphin — On Aug 20, 2012

I think "spilling the beans" is more than just letting out a secret. I think this idiom also implies that the secret that has been revealed somehow messes up the present situation. Sort of like an equilibrium that is changed. So the secret has a huge implication on the circumstances.

For example, we had a surprise party planned for my dad a couple of months ago. Just one day before his birthday, my little brother spilled the beans to my dad about the party. So not only did he let out a secret, but he ruined the surprise too!

My sister's birthday is coming up too and we might have a surprise party for her. I think the entire family is going to be cautioning my brother beforehand "don't spill the beans this time!"

By JimmyT — On Aug 20, 2012

@stl156 - I know what you mean. Sometimes I get into a situation where I am casually conversing with someone and out of nowhere I will accidentally reveal a portion of a secret without even thinking about it.

Whenever this happens it causes the person to pressure me into telling the rest of the story, even though my original intention was to keep my lips sealed with the matter and a little portion merely came out by accident.

Whenever this happens it is really difficult to explain to the person, who told you the secret, why you did it, as they may be angry and accuse you of not being able to keep a secret.

This can always be a bad situation and sadly it is somewhat unavoidable and everyone becomes guilty of doing it by accident at one time or another.

By stl156 — On Aug 19, 2012
I have witnessed and participated in many instances in which either I, or someone else, has committed the crime of spilling the beans.

To do so, even by accident, can create backlash in a social setting, because it usually involves something that is supposed to be a secret and someone who does not want a person who knows to tell anyone.

That being said, it can happen by accident quite often as I have spilled the beans in casual conversation, even though that was not my intention, and I have received backlash from the person that told me the secret in the first place.

By donasmrs — On Aug 18, 2012

I'm originally from Turkey and there is a Turkish idiom that is really similar to this one. Roughly translated, it's "beans can't soak in your mouth." I know it sounds really funny in English, but it refers to someone who cannot keep a secret.

This version of "spill the beans" comes from the fact that dry beans need to be soaked in water overnight before they are cooked. So someone who can't hold the beans in their mouth long enough to soak means that they let secrets out really quickly.

I wonder if there are more versions of "spill the beans" in other countries and cultures.

By golf07 — On Aug 18, 2012

The first time I tried to explain to my daughter what "spill the beans" meant, she just gave me a blank look.

I could see that she was trying to process what I was telling her, but she had a hard time seeing the connection between telling a secret and a bunch of beans.

By myharley — On Aug 17, 2012

I think it is especially hard for kids to keep a secret and not "spill the beans." In fact it seems like the more you ask some kids if they can keep a secret, the more apt they are to let it out.

There is a difference in personality types though. I have one son who is pretty tight-lipped about everything and I can usually trust him not to divulge a secret.

My other son is just the opposite and if you want people to know something without telling them yourself, all you have to do is tell him the secret. I don't think he even realizes he is "spilling the beans," he just can't keep the secret to himself.

By bagley79 — On Aug 17, 2012

I am always interested in where idioms originated and it sounds like this one really doesn't have a very clear origin at all.

When I think of someone "spilling the beans" I think of one of my best friends who has a hard time keeping a secret. Even though she is one of my closest friends, I have learned to never share anything with her that I don't want everyone else to know.

By andee — On Aug 17, 2012

When I was growing up I had a game that was called, "Don't Spill the Beans." This didn't have anything to do with secrets, but you played this game with actual beans. The object of the game was not to let the beans tip over and spill out of the pot.

This was a pretty simple game that could keep my sister and I entertained for a little while anyway.

By afterall — On Jan 20, 2011

In general, we all know the people in our lives who don't spill the beans, and those who do; especially in terms of big secrets, knowing who has told secrets in the past can help prevent things from being revealed in the future.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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