Beans and More Beans

By Maeve Maddox

Considering the flurry of comments triggered by my inclusion of a bean idiom in a recent post, I decided to give the humble bean a post of its own.

The noun bean is Germanic in origin. August Fick (1833-1916) German comparative linguist, suggested that bean was cognate with faba, the Latin word for bean, but according to the OED, “phonetic considerations render this doubtful.”

Originally, the word bean referred only to the broad bean (Faba vulgaris), but now it refers to any seed that resembles it.

Human beings and beans have had a long relationship; Egyptians buried them with their dead, and Homer mentioned them in the Iliad. On the ancient Roman feast called the Lemuria (or Lumuralia), the pater familias (father of the family) got out of bed at midnight to walk around the house barefoot, throwing black beans over his shoulder. The rite was intended to exorcise any malevolent spirits that had accumulated in the household during the previous year.

Pythagoras instructed his followers “not to love beans,” but he may have been warning them against meddling in politics, not forbidding them to eat beans; beans were used as markers in political elections.

Artistotle equated the bean with venery (pursuit of sexual pleasure); to him, “abstaining from beans” meant “keeping the body chaste.”

As common objects of daily life, beans found their way into literary and proverbial use. “Not worth a bean” came to mean worthless. Chaucer (1343-1400) uses the expression in “The Merchant’s Tale.” The hero of the tale is a knight who, after 60 years of bachelorhood, finally decides to marry:

“For no other way of life,” he said, “is worth a bean.”

A person who “does not have a bean” is poor indeed, although the bean in this expression may originate elsewhere than with the legume. A slang term for a sovereign or a guinea was bean. “Not to have a bean” meant “not to have a cent.”

“Not to know beans about something” is to know nothing about it:

Charles Faddis Does not Know Beans About Nuclear Energy

“To spill the beans” is “to reveal a secret”:

Drunk Whistleblower Spilled The Beans On Chemtrail Front Company For CIA

The business world has a couple of bean expressions all its own. A “bean counter” is a contemptuous term applied to an accountant or other financial expert by people who feel that creativity is more valuable than mere record-keeping. A beanfeast or beanfest is an annual dinner given by an employer to his employees.

The word bean is slang for head:

“I’m a bit short on brain myself; the old bean would appear to have been constructed more for ornament than for use, don’t you know…” –P. G. Wodehouse, My Man Jeeves

Wodehouse and other British writers used “Old Bean” as a friendly term of address: “You don’t mind my asking, do you old bean?”

“Use your bean” means “think!” The little cap called a beanie gets its name from this meaning of bean, as does the baseball term bean ball, “a ball thrown at a batter’s head.” This application of bean has also given us a verb bean, “to hit someone on the head.”

A beanery is a cheap restaurant, presumably because the meals are heavy on beans. The American city of Boston–famous for its baked beans–is often referred to as “Bean Town.”

The expression that inspired this post is “full of beans,” meaning “full of energy and high spirits”:

[In winter I try] to rise and shine, full of beans, every day. 

[Reba] seems fresh, fit and full of beans, projecting herself the way I’m told she always does…

When I defined “full of beans” as “full of energy and high spirits,” several readers informed me of another meaning: “full of baloney” (or what bologna becomes once it is digested.)

“Full of beans” in the sense of “energetic” probably originated as stable slang. Bean-fed horses were observed to be in good condition and lively, as in these examples from the OED:

1870   Daily News 27 July 5   The horses […] looked fresh and beany.

1843 R. S. Surtees Handley Cross II. vii. 199   [Hounds, horses], and men, are in a glorious state of excitement! Full o’ beans and benevolence!

Another 19th century use of “full of beans” noted as stable slang was applied to a person “whom sudden prosperity had made offensive and conceited.” I suppose that such a stuck-up person could be seen as “full of beans” in the sense of being “full of it.”

Apparently both meanings are current, so don’t be surprised if you get a puzzled look if your meaning doesn’t match that of your listener.

I’ll end with what is probably the best-known bean quotation in popular culture, Rick’s farewell to Ilsa in the movie Casablanca:

Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but 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.

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23 Responses to “Beans and More Beans”

  • Danny

    Cool beans!

    “Full of beans” can mean fill of high spirits and hi-jinks — sort of like “feeling one’s oats.” It can also mean filled with excrement.

  • D.A.W.

    This is a very nice article. Maeve DOES know beans about beans!

  • D.A.W.

    An imitation frankfurter (hot dog) made with soybean protein instead of meat: “A beany weenie” !

  • Roberta B.

    I believe “to spill the beans” is “to [inadvertently] reveal a secret” (sincerely or feigned).

    Bean Ball – a baseball term in which a pitch (accidental or with intent) hits or passes near the batter’s head.

    Also, I keep thinking that “not worth a hill of beans” has something to do with the biblical reference to Jacob’s exchange with Esau for his birthright. However, I keep seeing that Esau’s end of the bargain was far less than a “hill of beans,” but only one meal (of beans) – both, no matter the amount, having far less value than the inheritance he forfeited.

  • Roberta B.

    @DAW – My recollection of “beany weenie” is dish of sausage and beans, not the vegetarian product you referenced. Those haven’t been around that long, at least not in relation to my lifetime.

  • thebluebird11

    @Roberta: I agree. When I feel energetic enough to cook, I slice some hotdogs into bite-size pieces, throw the pieces in a pot with a can of beans, heat it up and call it dinner. That’s a beanie-weenie night! But don’t worry: If I have company coming, I serve coleslaw with it LOL.

  • venqax

    Beanie weenie refers to a dish of baked beans and sliced hot dogs (rather than pork and beans). You can find it in many many cookbooks and other places. Beenee Weenee is a specific product of the same thing sold by Van Camps company. It’s probably a registered trademark. It’s beans and wieners– very straightforward. Nothing to do with soy.

  • venqax

    @Maeve: This reminds me of a previous issue about the meaning of the expression “full of beans”. I have always heard that to mean full of mischievous energy, as I think you said. I have not heard it as synonymous with full of baloney (full of crap, having no real knowledge or value). Maybe its variations are regional? DK

  • Roberta B.

    @venqax Your memory is correct. It was discussed recently as implied in the opening paragraph (see comments posted under the hyperlinked entry). It looks like you missed a chance to comment that day, and I barely got one in. Could your reference to “full of beans” give us a clue to where you are coming from, regionally?

  • D.A.W.

    Aha! There is a slight difference:
    1. Beany weenie and 2. Beany weenies,
    one singular and the other plural, plus various spellings,
    re: trademarks, etc.
    Beany weenies (however you spell that) come in tin cans with multiple small weenies.
    There, there is the kind that you make yourself. I do that!

  • D.A.W.

    “Bean ball” was mentioned in the article above, so I was puzzled to see it mentioned again in the comments section.
    It was enough to make my head spin.

    I had mentioned the “bean ball” in the comments section of the previous article about beans.

  • D.A.W.

    A bumper sticker that you used to be able to buy for your vehicles: EAT MORE BEANS
    AMERICA NEEDS THE GAS

  • Roberta B.

    @DAW You are correct. “Bean ball” already was mentioned above. Since it’s baseball season, that expression was on my mind! Sorry for the repeat. Also, it’s true that you included it in one of your 16 separate comments on food idioms for the article linked in the opening paragraph. I didn’t read all of them that day. One or two from the same person usually is plenty. Otherwise, it can get tedious.

  • thebluebird11

    @Roberta and venqax: Since I only submitted one comment on this post (so far), I figure I’m safe submitting one more; no chance of 16. I grew up in Brooklyn and the expression “full of beans” goes back at least to when I was a kid in the 60s. To us it meant full of baloney (or crap, or any other slang word for excrement, which we were not allowed to say on penalty of getting our mouths washed out with soap). We never heard it to mean full of energy or the like. I was kind of disconcerted when I read its alternate meaning in this post, because the 2 ideas are far apart in meaning, and I would not want to use it to mean one thing and have someone (from another region, perhaps?) take it the wrong way; especially these days in emails or texts, you know how things can get misinterpreted. In general I think one could determine its meaning from context, but you never know.

  • venqax

    @Roberta & bluebird: My own daily language is likely a mix of Midwestern, mid-Atlantic East Coast, and Rocky Mountain/southwest as I’ve lived in and had influences from all 3. And that doesn’t narrow things down much, does it. Not NY, NEng or Dixie, though. My guess is that full of beans implying mischievous, if regional, would be Great Lakes midwest-ish– Ohio, Indiana, W. Penn, N. Kentucky even. The instances of its use I can recall, at least, were from those places or people from those places. The little redheaded boy from next door was officially declared full of beans more than once. He was only about 7 years old and his Scarlet FOB came from his somewhat disruptive behavior. If anything I think it would be preferable to being judged full of the other stuff.

  • Roberta B.

    As I mentioned in the food idiom article, I believe the expression FOB morphed as a result of using a “B” word such as beans or baloney as an acceptable alternative for another crude or vulgar word for “untrue nonsense,” or “full of bull__” – nice rhyme(!) – rather than just the second syllable (or synonym) alone mentioned by some others. They actually have two different connotations, and in some languages, they’re two entirely different words – one generally meaning worthless and one a more colorful expression for a fake, phony, or false waste of time. Excuse me from becoming tedious.

  • D.A.W.

    Oh, Roberta B., you really need to know what a “milk run” was (men’s lives were at stake), and to
    EAT MORE BEANS
    AMERICA NEEDS THE GAS!
    LOL

  • Deborah HH

    Partially related: In the Texas oilfields, a “Pipeliner’s Picnic” is a can of Beanee Weenees, a hunk of cheddar cheese, and a sleeve of crackers. It’s what a man would throw into his lunch box if his wife were not available to pack a more substantial meal.

  • venqax

    That IS what my packs for me! Can I get a list of what she should be doing? I think I’m getting ripped off! Thank you! 😉

  • AnWulf

    While it is true that ‘bean’ is NOT FROM Latin faba … most seem to hold that it KIN TO it.

  • venqax

    Like the PIE root *bha-bha? Bean? Most sources do seem to trace the Latin faba, Old Norse baun, and Slavic bob all from that root. The Italian fava makes for one of the redundancies: Fava been = bean bean. Kind of like shrimp scampi.

  • D.A.W.

    Oh, Deborah, thank you so much!
    A “Pipeliner’s Picnic” is a can of “Beanee Weenees”, a hunk of cheddar cheese, and a sleeve of crackers.
    That is SO hilarious! (:-)!

  • D.A.W.

    Deborah, you have reminded me of an old joke about cheese sandwiches:
    A crew of contruction workers was working on a skyscraper in the big city. They all brought their lunches to work every day.
    For months, one of them had a complaint every day:
    “Cheese sandwiches, cheese sandwiches; every day it is cheese sandwiches. Oh, God, I hate cheese sandwiches!”

    Finally, one of the others could not take it anymore, and he asked, “Why don’t you tell your wife to make you something else for lunch?”
    The first fellow replied, “Wife? What wife? I make my own lunch.”

    Ouch. In case you don’t think that this one is funny, it DOES fall into the category of “Dumb Jokes”. There is no doubt about it, and some people have a taste for dumb jokes, but others do not.
    This one can also be viewed as a fable about people who complain endlessly about things that they COULD CHANGE, if only they expended a little effort to do so.

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