‘Spilled the Beans’: Definition, Meaning and Examples

By Sophia Merton, updated on May 10, 2023

Did someone get mad at you because you ‘spilled the beans’ and you don’t know what it means? In this article, we’ll talk a look at the meaning, origin, example sentences, and more.

In brief:

  • ‘Spilled the beans’ is an idiom that means to reveal information that was meant to be kept a secret or private.

What Does 'Spilled the Beans' Mean?

If someone ‘spilled the beans,’ it means that they revealed information that was supposed to be a secret.

For example, if you were throwing a surprise party for your friend and your mother mentioned a party to them beforehand, you could say that she ‘spilled the beans.’

The verb ‘spilled’ doesn’t have to be used in the past tense– in fact, the most common version of the phrase is ‘spill the beans.’ If you wanted to warn your mother not to tell your friend about the surprise party, you could say:

“Please don’t ‘spill the beans’!”

Where Does 'Spilled the Beans' Come From?

There are a few different theories about where the phrase ‘spilled the beans’ comes from, but the most common points back thousands of years to the origin of this idiom.

This theory dates all the way back to ancient Greece, when beans were used as a tool to hold an anonymous vote.

  • Dark color beans indicated negative votes, while white beans indicated votes in the affirmative.

The notion was that these votes were cast in secret. However, if someone were to knock the jar over (either on purpose or by accident), they would have revealed how the people had voted before it was supposed to be known.

  • Others believe that since the phrase doesn’t appear in writing until the earliest 20th century, there must be another explanation.

Early Uses of ‘Spilled the Beans’ in Writing

Using the Google Books Ngram Viewer, we see that 'spilled the beans' and ‘spill the beans’ didn’t appear in publications until the early 20th century.

The earliest use of this phrase can be found in the United States, with the phrase having a similar meaning to ‘upset the applecart’ or ‘spoil the beans.’

In The Stevens Point Journal from 1908, we find one of the earliest examples of the phrase:

"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."

In The Van Wert Daily Bulletin from the fall of 1911, we find the idiom used with the meaning of “disrupting a situation that was previously stable by talking out of turn.”

"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'."

A 1922 record from the New York Court of Appeals also uses the phrase:

“On the 28th of June, Mr. Nieman came down to Granville and brought an attorney with him, as I understand it, Mr. Hicks told me he was an attorney, and I guess Mr. Cole was of the same impression, and Mr. Nieman told Cole, he says, “Now, Cole, if you go on with these affidavits, and if you try to collect any money up there,” he says, “I am going to spill the beans,” and Cold says, “Go ahead if you want to spill the beans; you are in the same boat as I am; you are not a bit better than I am,” he says, “you will come right on the boat with me.”

The testimony continues on to include another usage of the phrase:

“And that was the conversation that happened at that time. Now, when he came down there to spill the beans he must have had some to spill.”

Examples of 'Spilled the Beans' In Sentences

How would 'spilled the beans' be used in a sentence?

Let’s take a look at some examples:

  • Let’s try and keep the new car a secret from Jenny, at least until her birthday. I know you’re excited, but please don’t spill the beans!”
  • “It’s good to hear that John and Sarah are getting along better, but you really should spill the beans like that. What goes on between them is only their business.”
  • “Don’t tell me your secrets! I’m such a blabbermouth, and I’ll end up spilling the beans before I even realize it. I talk a lot, and sometimes it takes me a minute to realize what comes out of my mouth.”
  • “I owe you an apology– I spilled the beans about your vacation to the boss. I didn’t realize you hadn’t told him yet.”
  • “She definitely comes from a good place, but I couldn’t believe that she spilled the beans about the proposal. Jim had worked so hard to organize the most romantic way to ask Rachael to marry him, and it’s such a shame that the surprise was ruined.”

Other Ways to Say 'Spilled the Beans'

What are some other words and phrases that have a similar meaning to 'spilled the beans'?

Here are some options:

  • Letting the cat out of the bag
  • Squealing
  • Sing
  • Let slip

Final Thoughts About 'Spilled the Beans'

‘Spilled the beans’ is a fun idiom that means someone revealed information that was supposed to be kept secret indefinitely or until a certain period of time has passed. Though it’s unclear whether it really dates back to the ancient Greek voting method of putting beans in jars, it is certain that this well-known idiom has been in use since at least the early 20th century.

Are you ready to learn more English phrases and expand your vocabulary? Be sure to check out our idioms blog for idioms, expressions, sayings, and more!

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Written By:
Sophia Merton
Sophia Merton is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Sophia received her BA from Vassar College. She is passionate about reading, writing, and the written word. Her goal is to help everyone, whether native English speaker or not, learn how to write and speak with perfect English.

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