Do you know how many beans make five? – Expressions with the word ‘bean’

There are many different kinds of beans, from kidney beans and string beans to pinto and lima beans. Apart from being the key ingredient in many popular dishes all over the world, did you know that beans also happen to be an ingredient in a number of phrases and idioms in English? Let’s learn a few!


to be full of beans

When someone is lively, healthy, full of energy and very enthusiastic, you can say that they are full of beans:

I’m looking forward to my first day at work; I’m full of beans!

The phrase became popular in the 1800s and is probably related to the practice of feeding horses with beans to make them more energetic.

In American English, though, full of beans can also mean that someone has not been truthful, that they’ve been talking nonsense or exaggerating. 

What you’re saying doesn’t make any sense! You’re full of beans!

a hill of beans

An American expression, a hill of beans can be used to say that someone or something has very little worth or importance. It’s typically used in negative sentences, with verbs such as to amount to or to be worth

The meaning comes from the fact that beans have always been very cheap and easy to grow – a whole hill of beans isn’t worth much.

I’m sorry, but your ideas don’t amount to a hill of beans.

Your advice isn’t worth a hill of beans.

not know beans [about]

Mainly American English, this phrase means that someone is totally clueless and ignorant; they don’t know anything about something:

My computer doesn’t seem to work and I don’t know how to fix it. I don’t know beans about computers!

This expression originated in the early 1800s and also has to do with beans as a symbol of something very small and essentially worthless.

spill the beans

The phrase to spill the beans means to reveal an information or secret, accidentally and unintentionally, before you were supposed to:

How could you spill the beans about the party?! Now it won’t be a surprise.

There’s a popular theory saying that this phrase goes back to ancient Greece and the practice of voting in the assemblies by putting white or black beans in jars. If someone accidentally spilled the beans, the result of the vote would be known too early.

Although often repeated, this theory can’t be right: the expression originated in the U.S. in the early 20th century, and derives from the earlier usage of ‘to spill’ meaning ‘to reveal’, ‘to divulge’. Beans in this phrase are probably a random choice, as there are also phrases with the same meaning but different nouns, such as ‘to spill the soup’ or ‘to spill [one’s] guts’.

not have a bean

If you don’t have a bean, it means you have no money, you’re penniless:

I had a lot of expenses last month and now I don’t have a bean.

Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Pexels.com

This meaning comes from the use of ‘bean’ as a slang word for a guinea, a type of coin used in the UK until the early 1800s, and then as a unit of account until the early 1970s. The coin is gone, but this phrase remains.

give [someone] beans

This expression means to criticise someone strongly, to scold or berate, to yell at:

He’s made the same mistake yet again! I’m totally going to give him beans!

know how many beans make five

British and somewhat outdated, this phrase means that someone is intelligent and knowledgeable, definitely not to be taken for a fool:

She may have dropped out of school, but she still knows how many beans make five.

It comes from an earlier expression ‘to know [one’s] beans’, where beans referred to the beads on an abacus. Thus ‘to know [one’s] beans’, or ‘to know how many beans make five’, meant that the person was educated; they knew how to use an abacus and perform mathematical operations.

A man using an abacus
A man using an abacus. Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

old bean

You won’t hear this one often any more, but about a hundred years ago that was (mainly) British slang for an old (male) friend, a chap:

How nice to see you again, old bean!

It seems to have been popular around the time of the 1st World War, but its origin isn’t entirely clear. Some have suggested that the word ‘bean’ here is a corrupted form of ‘being’ (as in human being, man), while another theory says that it’s a substitution for ‘boy’ (as in ‘old boy’ = friend).


As a grammar reminder, be careful about the correct use of singular, plural and the articles: the expressions above are set phrases, meaning you can’t change the exact wording. That’s always a big challenge with learning sayings and idioms, so try to learn them by heart and practice them as much as you can.

Have you heard of any other expressions containing the word ‘bean’? Do share them in the comments section below!

7 Replies to “Do you know how many beans make five? – Expressions with the word ‘bean’”

  1. Dear Nenad,

    Thank you for your well-presented post on expression involving the word “bean(s)”.

    I would like to refer to the use of the expression “a hill of beans”:

    I’m sorry, but your ideas don’t amount to a hill of beans.

    Your advice isn’t worth a hill of beans.

    In order to make sense logically, it should not be used in negative sentences because it actually means the opposite. After all, stating that someone or something does not amount to very little worth or importance is conveying that someone or something amounts to a great deal.

    Therefore, it makes much more sense in the positive as follows:

    I’m sorry, but your ideas amount to a hill of beans.

    Your advice is worth a hill of beans.

    Now, I hope that Mr Bean and you will look favourably on my spilling the beans here.

    Happy October to you!

    Yours sincerely,
    SoundEagle

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the comment, SoundEagle! You’re making an interesting point here about the use of negative verb in the expressions above. What it does, it adds emphasis, indicating that something is worth even less than an already worthless hill of beans. You can notice the same pattern in phrases like “I couldn’t care less”, which doesn’t amount to “I could care more”, although that might appear perfectly logical. Languages often escape logic 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Dear Nenad,

        You are welcome. Thank you for your reply.

        Statement such as “I couldn’t care less” and “I couldn’t agree with you more” are logically fine. For example, the statement “They couldn’t agree with you more” means that they completely agree with you, insofar as they agree with you so completely that they could not possibly agree (even) more than they already do.

        The problem that I highlighted earlier about using “a hill of beans” in negative sentences is akin to the problem of double negatives, such as “I didn’t tell no lies” or “I didn’t do nothing”, which means the opposite of what the speaker actually intends to convey.

        I have something witty on my blog about my policing of certain grammatical problems, which you are welcome to peruse. If you are interested, here is one of my posts that deal with one of the commonest issues. The lack of consistently high competence in formulating and expressing thoughts and ideas amongst the general populace and even specialized professionals has also been an outstanding issue. After all, English is indeed a fast-evolving language, but not always in a good and unproblematic way, for my following analytical post presents in lucid detail (and in a somewhat humorous way) one of the most damning proofs of the linguistic decline and grammatical degeneration increasingly afflicting English:

        https://soundeagle.wordpress.com/2013/06/24/use-with-caution-or-not-at-all/

        I would be delighted if you could kindly let me know what you make of my said post by leaving your feedback there. In addition, you are welcome to alert me of other examples that you can think of or have come across by leaving some comment(s) there.

        Yours sincerely,
        SoundEagle

        Like

      2. Thanks for sharing the link, I’ll definitely check it out!

        Back to our little hill of beans 🙂 It’s essentially an idiomatic expression that’s set like that, with the use of a negative verb. Have a look at the entry in Merriam-Webster (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hill%20of%20beans) or the following article that explains the origin of the expression: https://www.almanac.com/fact/where-did-the-saying-not-worth-a

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Dear Nenad,

        Please kindly excuse my typo: The corrected word is Statements, which should be plural in my sentence “Statement such as “I couldn’t care less” and “I couldn’t agree with you more”…..

        Yours sincerely,
        SoundEagle

        Like

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