Beans and More Beans
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.
Want to improve your English in 5 minutes a day? Click here to subscribe and start receiving our writing tips and exercises via email every day.
Recommended Articles for You
Subscribe to Receive our Articles and Exercises via Email
- You will improve your English in only 5 minutes per day, guaranteed!
- Subscribers get access to our archives with 800+ interactive exercises!
- You'll also get three bonus ebooks completely free!