There are a lot of idioms, or figurative expressions, in the English language having to do with food. You might call someone who is a bad influence a bad apple or someone intelligent a smart cookie. Or, in a nutshell, you might find yourself in a pickle with something you thought was going to be a piece of cake. And if you've ever thrown a surprise party for someone, you might have told the guests "don't spill the beans" about the shindig, meaning don't share the secret information and spoil the surprise. But where does the idiom "spill the beans" come from?
Ancient Greece Beginnings?
So much of our language comes from the ancient world, either Greek or Latin. So it's not that farfetched to think that spilling the beans come to us from the Greek practice of voting, where a white bean was dropped in a jar for a yes vote and a black bean was used for a no vote (also, by the way, the likely origin of something being "blackballed." The votes were meant to be secret and anonymous, so someone if someone knocked over the jar and spilled the beans, they would reveal the votes before they were counted.
And the verb "spill" has long meant divulge or let out. You might be familiar with the phrase "spill blood" in the context of war or murder. This definition of spill has been around since the 16th century. In Guevara's Familiar Epistles, Edward Hellowes wrote: "Although it be a shame to spill it, I will not leaue to say that which... his friends haue said vnto me."
Modern Usage of Spill the Beans
It's not until the 20th century that spill the beans is found in common usage in the United States, but it's meaning was more along the lines of "upsetting the applecart," another food idiom meaning to overturn or disturb a stable situation. The first written example is from June 1908 in the Wisconsin newspaper The Stevens Point Journal:
"Tawney, when he came to congress, wasn't welcomed within the big tent. He had to wait around on the outside. Then the blacksmith [Jim Tawney] got busy. He just walked off the reservation, taking enough insurgent Republicans with him to spill the beans for the big five."
Another example comes from Ohio in 1911 in The Van Wert Daily Bulletin:
"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'."
Spill the beans has even morphed into other similar phrases like spill the tea, meaning to blab or gossip about something. So whether you're spilling the beans, spilling the tea or spilling your guts, just remember it's best not to cry over spilled milk.