Fricassee of Words – Spilling The Beans

Fricassee: Meat cut into pieces and stewed in gravy.

Fricassee of Words: Musings on food-inspired expressions, words and word play, with occasional bits and pieces of kitchen jargon too.

Don’t stir the pot, go fry an egg, two eggs in a basket are better than one hen in the bush… you get the picture by now, and here is today’s food-inspired expression for us to pick at.

158 - 0325 - secret

To Spill the Beans

Meaning – To tell a secret or reveal information that should not have been shared with anyone. This is not only in the sense of a mere slip, but also in the sense of a conscious attempt to provoke.

We find explanation for this expression at two ends of the historical spectrum, so to speak: In ancient Greece and in 20th century America. However, both contexts are linked to politics.

It is in The Van Wert Daily Bulletin, an early 1900’s Ohio publication, that the phrase is first used in a manner that suggests precisely the meaning we give it today. The following words appear in an October 1911 issue: “Finally Secretary Fisher, of the President’s cabinet, who had just returned from a trip to Alaska, was called by Governor Stubbs to the front, and proceeded, as one writer says, to ‘spill the beans’.”

While “spilling the beans” appears in the American vernacular at that time, the use of the word “spill” to describe the act of revealing information that should otherwise remain secret dates back to the 16th century. At that time, a publication known as Guevara’s Familiar Epistles records the following passage (using the old typeface of the time): “Although it be a shame to spill it, I will not leaue to say that which… his friends haue said vnto me.”

As for Ancient Greece, it is said that it was common practice then to use black and white beans as “ballots” when voting. White for “aye” and black for “nay.” We can see from this that spilling the beans before the end of the voting process could reveal the outcome at a glance. Then, one must separate the beans and start anew, but once they are spilled, is there really such a thing as a true, fresh start?

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