Antedatings of "spill the beans"
hugovk at GMAIL.COM
Wed Feb 5 11:37:28 UTC 2014
The OED has spill the beans meaning "to reveal a secret" from 1919.
The Phrase Finder has 1908 for the meaning of "upset the applecart"
and 1911 for "upset a previously stable situation by talking out of
The earliest I found is a 1902 in horse-racing, meaning "caused an
upset", quoting owner E. J. Arnold.
The St. Louis Republic (St. Louis, MO), November 25, 1902:
"Ethylene was 15 to 1 one day and would have won sure had Battiste
been up. He was set down by the starter in St. Louis and I had to ride
a bad boy. Then we put Battiste up later and got down. Kiley told him
to take her back a bit. He did, and in some manner the field ran
around and over her so that she was shut in, cut off and lost. So the
beans were spilled.
I found some 1903 examples, all from horse-racing meaning to cause an
upset, and all in the same The St. Louis Republic.
The St. Louis Republic (St. Louis, MO), May 06, 1903:
KINGSTELLE SPILLED THE BEANS.
Every one fancied that the fifth race was a two-horse one between
Nearest and Audiphone, who were held at 4 to 5 and 8 to 5
respectively. Kingstelle, a 10-to-l shot, broke it up. She laid away
from the pace and came along in the stretch, and won, handily, a real
nice race. Nearest and Audiphone ran to a head finish. Nearest getting
the best of it. It was the third time that these two horses met on
equal terms. Each time Nearest has beaten Audiphone by a head. This is
form of a miraculous nature. The secret of it is that both have been
trying hard. Neither Mr. Flippen, who trains Audiphone, or Mr. Hughes,
who owns Nearest, is around stalling with the old complaint: "Now, you
know you feel good one day and bad the next. That is just like a
The St. Louis Republic (St. Louis, MO), June 13, 1903:
St. Agnes II has no business in here. Out with Bel Coeur, a full
sister to the French girl. Her Folieship has no business in either, as
she is liable to run out and spill the beans.
The St. Louis Republic (St. Louis, MO), September 07, 1903:
ATTRACTIVE CARD AT DELMAR RACES.
Each Race Presents a Horse That Seems to Hold His Field Safe.
STAKE RACE IS THE HARDEST.
Jordan Should Win on Form, but Helen Print and W. B. Gates Likely to
Improve and Spill the Beans.
The St. Louis Republic (St. Louis, MO), September 09, 1903:
He is not a consistent horse, judging from his races. Neither did he
get much of a ride last time, when it seemed that Inglethrift was the
"right" one. Lord Hermence came on and spilled the beans.
By 1907 the phrase had spread beyond Missouri and beyond horse-racing.
Here's baseball in The Democrat-Sentinel (Logan, Ohio), 29 Aug. 1907:
At this point the game began to get interesting, as Logan was just two
scores behind, and were beginning to find Farrow's delivery with ease,
but the beans were spilled in the eighth when Jones, who played
sensational ball all during the game, erred on Murphy and Kelley,
first two up, this followed by stolen base and an error by Johnson at
the plate and Farrow's single were good for thee more runs, bringing
their total to nine, just three more than Logan made during the entire
Here's a pun in The Rice belt journal (Welsh, Calcasieu Parish, LA),
23 Aug. 1907 (also in VA):
Eat in haste and repent in pepsin.
Do not eat with your knife; it spills the beans.
A penny saved is a penny earned by the doctor.
As The Phrase Finder shows by 1908 it was used outside sport meaning
"to cause an upset". And by 1911 it was used in politics meaning
"upset a previously stable situation by talking out of turn". From
there, the meaning evolved to the modern one, to reveal a secret which
may cause an upset.
Links to sources can be found here:
The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org
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