To “spill the beans” means to divulge a secret, especially if you do so by accident, or maliciously, and upset the situation. The earliest meaning of “spill” was “kill,” in common use in the 1300s. It has meant “divulge” since at least the 1500s.
Variations include: “spill the soup,” “spill your guts,” “spill blood,” and just plain “spill.” You might also spill the dirt, the dice, the dope, or the works.
The phrase, a synonym for “upset the apple cart,” is first found in print in the early 1900s, in America. The Van Wert Daily Bulletin, October 1911 says: “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’.”
“Bean” forms part of several other phrases such as “hill of beans,” (originating in America about 1860) usually describing something of little or no value. The ‘hill’ part of the expression refers to a common method of planting beans. Instead of arranging the seeds in a row, they can be planted in small clumps of four or five seeds in a little mound or hill of soil. This phrase was then applied figuratively to the illogical idea that if one bean was worthless, a whole hill of them was even more so.
The phrase appears at the end of the film Casablanca, in which Humphrey Bogart says to Ingrid Bergman, “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.”
However, note that in the fairy tale of Jack and the Beanstalk, the so-called valueless beans Jack was given in exchange for the cow resulted in his gaining riches revealed by the full-grown beanstalk. So, sometimes “beans,” mean “money.” An accountant is often called a “bean counter.”
But, back to “spill the beans.” The phrase is often used in written stories and film, when policemen get suspects to “spill the beans.” Planning a surprise party can be difficult when friends are inclined to “spill the beans.”
It can be tempting to spill the beans when you have a delicious secret, but supposing you do and they take root in a little hill and flourish? Is that dinner?