Thursday, May 25, 2017



When it comes to English idioms, beans rule. Here are just a few idioms that employ bean or beans:

In the 1800s the idiom hill of beans was born, meaning worthless, mostly due to the relative lack of value of beans. 

Since the 1800s, someone who is full of energy can be said to be full of beans. 

In 1830, it could be said of a clever person that s/he knows how many beans make five. Though nobody is certain, this idiom may have provided the contrast for the phrase suggesting someone is anything but clever, s/he doesn’t know beans

Since 1837, a thin person might be referred to as a beanpole

Spill the beans first showed up in 1910, when it meant spoil the situation. By 1919 spill the beans meant reveal a secret.

Since 1940 we’ve been referring to a small close-fitting hat as a beanie, a term that grew out of the 1910 slang word for head, bean.

It appears the idiom cool beans, meaning excellent! (as of the 80s & 90s) may have originated in the 1970s, when a handful of colorful uppers &/or downers looked like a handful of jelly-beans.

And, since 1971, anyone overly focused on trivial details can be referred to as a bean-counter. Like hill of beans, this idiom reflects the relative  lack of value of beans.

Do any of you out there know beans? If so, please leave a comment.

Thanks to this week’s sources,, the OED, Merriam-Webster, Word Detective, &


  1. I've never heard "knows how many beans make five" or "cool beans" Probably a good thing with regards to the later. So fun to discover where phrases we repeat without really thinking about it come from. Thanks, Charlie!

  2. Christine, you're a gal who knows how many beans makes five - surprising you hadn't heard the idiom! Thanks for coming by once again.

  3. A guy I knew who thought he was very young and hip, but was in his mid-40s used the expression "cool beans" often. I thought it was contemporary slang. But from what you say, it was as contemporary as grunge rock. Haha.

    "Hill of beans" always reminds me of the great quote from Casablanca. "It doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you'll understand that. Now, now. Here's looking at you, kid."

    1. My heart goes out to those who mistakenly think they are young & hip. And thanks for popping by. Here's looking at you, Anne!