Monthly Archives: November 2013

Spilling the Beans: Death & Democracy

Hello everyone. Are we ready for this mid-week installment of Bill’s Bologna? Yes? Awesome! No? Too bad because here we go.

Today, we’re going to focus on the phrase “spilling the beans.” It’s widely used throughout the English speaking world, & it what we say when someone accidentally lets a secret slip out.

The most popular explanation on the internet has to do with Ancient Greece & their voting methods. In Athens, they voted by placing white & black beans in jars. A tally of the beans would be taken. It’s commonly believed that this is the origin of the phrase because if you spilled the jar of beans, you’d ruin the vote.

In her WiseGeek article, “What Does ‘Spill the Beans’ Mean?”, Mary McMahon mentions that another common way to explain the phrase goes back to the Middle Ages. Beans were a relatively cheap crop to grow & sell. They could bring in a lot of money, but you had to plant them the right way. If you spilled them, they’d grow incorrectly.


Unfortunately, Jack didn’t spill the beans when he planted them. Now that big dude wants to eat him.

Okay, at the risk of sounding like a toothpaste commercial, I’m going to go ahead & say that nine out of ten etymologists will probably tell you that both the Greek origin & this one are not likely.

Here’s why:

First, let’s take a look at the word “spill.” Over its eight hundred year life, it has evolved quite a bit.The word dates back to the Twelfth Century & back then, it didn’t mean accidentally emptying a container. The word spill comes from the Old English (Not Ancient Greek) word, “spillan,” which simply means to kill. Later, in Middle English, the spelling changed to “spillen.” Around that time, it also became synonymous with slaughtering & causing destruction. This is where the phrase “spilling blood” originates. At the same time, I’d be willing to bet that at some point before it meant what we know it to mean today, “spilling your guts” meant to open up. Well, it does but in a very gaping stomach wound-type way, instead of emotionally. Anyway, over the ages, “spill” continued to soften its definition until it meant causing the kind of damage not necessarily associated with death, & eventually it turned into accidentally emptying the contents of something.

So, let’s get back to the Greeks. This notion wouldn’t be possible because the word “spill” didn’t even exist in Greek & even if it had, it would not have been used to describe what happens to the beans when their container is knocked to the ground. The translation would be, “kill the beans.”
As for the Middle Age’s bean planting problems, this hypothesis doesn’t really work either. By dropping a few beans, you  most definitely wouldn’t be causing any grave damage or ruining anything. You’d most likely have enough to plant a good crop if you did spill a few. Even if you didn’t have enough, you could just pick up the ones you dropped & replant them.

Moving on. Why beans & not candy… or money?
Well, an English website called The Phrase Finder suggests a very simple idea. Beans might just be a filler word that originated in the United States. Around the turn of the century, there were many similar phrases using the familiar “spill the _______.”  Ones like “spill the soup” have gone by the wayside, leaving the ones we know.

The first recorded usage of the phrase using the word “beans” is from 1908, being used in politics & sports to describe unexpected upsets. Though it was the first written record, the phrase in this form was probably around in some capacity before then. Remember, many things get written down well after they’re spoken for the first time.

Most scholars agree that the expression evolved to what it is today in the late 1920s & 1930s, but this is where the internet trail goes cold. We get no real explanation as to why. Wikipedia takes a stab by claiming that it became popular among hoboes, or the homeless population caused by the Great Depression, but in true Wikipedia fashion, it offers no explanation or backup for this. Don’t take it seriously. Unfortunately, most of the web pages that mention the homeless of the Depression use the Wikipedia entry as their source. Come on, internet writers. You know better.


This hobo doesn’t want you to spill the beans.

If anyone has any more information on this other than, “It happened because of hoboes,” please feel free to leave a comment. I’d like to know.

I most certainly am not an expert, but to sum this up, this one seems pretty inconclusive. We know the Ancient Greeks most likely didn’t coin the phrase because the word “spill” isn’t remotely Greek & we know that it wasn’t coined in the Middle Ages, because back then, “spill” meant something totally different. We also know the phrase as we know it, using the word “beans” as the object being dumped, didn’t appear on paper until the early 1900s. It probably was used verbally before then, but it certainly wasn’t being used in Ancient Greece.

At any rate, the conclusion I’ve reached is that the true origin of this one is lost to time. As the definition of the words involved evolved, it opened them up to different uses in slang & idioms. I guess that’s the way it goes.

For now, though, now you know; you’re welcome.


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Knock on Wood: Tree Trunks & Pieces of the Cross

People are supersticious. Over the centuries, people across the world have come up with thousands of techniques to prevent bad luck  & ward off jinxes. Knocking on wood is one of these ways of keeping your luck high.

The phrase is so commonly used, I’m willing to bet a lot of money on the fact that you know its context & I really don’t need to explain it. However, if you’ve never heard it before, it’s nice of you to come out from your cave you’ve been living in & join us. I guess I can give you an example. By the way, daylight is nice every once in a while, isn’t it?

Okay, well, knocking on wood wards off bad luck. It’s widely believed that if you talk about someting you want to happen in a positive light, you’ll jinx it & it won’t happen. People also believe it to prevent bad things from happening because you mentioned that they haven’t happened. Here’s an example:

“I guess it’s been a bad flu season. I’ve managed to stay healthy so far… Knock on wood.”

Some people actually knock on wooden objects.

Modern use of the phrase seems to have grown out of two possible scenarios. If there’s anything you’ve taken away from these blog posts, it’s that phrases evolve over time, & guess what.”Knock on wood”, as we know it here in America is not the original phrase. The expression comes from the British Islands & is very old. Over there, it hasn’t evolved, as they still use the original, “touch wood”. I don’t know if they use any gestures the way we do.

Now for the scenarios:

The origin of the first explanation comes from the time before Christianity took hold in England. In pagan times, it was believed that touching the trunks of trees would let the spirits living inside know you were there. They would then give you good luck by doing whatever tree spirits do to give you luck.


Knock on one of these & get yourself some good luck.
(Photo used courtesy of Wikipedia user, Leifern)

I bet all you readers out there have noticed a pattern in these posts. A good chunk of these idioms originate at sea or in the Middle Ages. The same goes for the second explanation about how this one came to be.

See, back then, people were much more religious than they are now & because of that, there were plenty of relics circulating around Europe. In a religious sense, relics are artifacts which are considered holy or blessed because they somehow came into direct contact with the people who played key roles in their respective religions. The most famous relic in the world is probably the Shroud of Turin, which is said to be the burial cloth of Jesus. Other relics include religious symbols, blood & body parts & even full sarcophagi of saints & important figures.


Yup, that’s a skull. It belonged to St. Ivo of Kermartin & it’s now on display in Brittany, France.
(Photo used courtesy of Wikipedia user, Derepus)


This the humerus of St Francis Xavier. I should’ve used this in last week’s Bologna.
(Photo used courtesy of Wikipedia user, John Hill)

There are other examples of less extreme relics, such as the robe of St. Francis of Assisi.

Anyway, to this day, many churches & cathedrals across Europe claim ownership of the same relics (as is the case of where St. John the Baptist’s head wound up after he was executed), so you’ll get multiple places claiming they have the right sandal of a specific saint or the left thumb of another.

Among the thousands of relics relics was a collection of wood that was said to be pieces of the cross on which Jesus was crucified. Hundreds of churches claimed that they were given real splinters from the cross. In fact, so many churches claimed this that John Calvin, the founder of Calvinism, skeptically remarked that there was enough wood from the cross to fill a ship. Regardless, thousands of devout Catholics flocked to these churches in hopes of catching a glimpse of the Holy Cross, & only a lucky few were allowed direct access to the wooden pieces. Even fewer were granted permission to touch them. When they did so, they were told that they had been blessed.

So, according to both of these theories, knocking on a wooden table does nothing. If you want luck, go smack a tree, but if you want to be blessed, go track down a church in some remote village in Italy, or something. They’ll probably have what you’re looking for.

Well, after all that information, I’ll let you all go about your days. Until next week, now you know; you’re welcome.

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The Funny Bone: Why Do We Call it the Funny Bone When it’s Not… Never Mind

The funny bone. We’ve all hit it a number of times in our lives. It’s not a nice feeling, to say the least.

Before we dive in, I’m going to stop here for a second. This is your cue to make your jokes about why people call it the funny bone when hitting it isn’t funny. I’ll leave you a few seconds worth of space:

Alright, that’s enough.
Now that you got that out of your systems, let’s get started.

Your upper arm bone which runs from the shoulder to the elbow is called the humerus. At the elbow, it comes into contact, via a hinge joint, with the two bones of your forearm, called the ulna & radius. Yes, I know you’re all thinking, “We all learned this back in 6th grade.” Well, how many of you thought that the humerus is the funny bone? It’s not.

It’s not even a bone at all. It’s actually a big nerve in your arm called the ulnar nerve. It runs right through the joint in the elbow, & because there isn’t much more than skin & bone there, once it crosses the joint, it runs very close to the surface.


Here’s a view of the arm, complete with the Ulnar Nerve, as originally seen in Gray’s Anatomy. (No, not the show. Stop it.)

When you hit your elbow just right, the nerve gets squashed inbetween whatever you bumped & your humerus. This causes the shooting pain & tingling.


Check it out. The nerve runs right across the elbow.

There are two widely accepted reasons for calling the ulnar nerve the “funny bone”. The first is very straightforward; it’s a pun. Humerus, or umerus is Latin for shoulder. Humerus is a homophone of humorous, so someone decided to make a pun out of humerus & funny.

The second has to do with the old definition of funny versus the modern definition. We know that when we use it today, it means something that causes laughter, but back before the Twentieth Century, funny meant odd or strange. I’d say the tingling sensation  you get when you smack that nerve into a table makes feels more strange than hilarious.

There it is. The ulnar nerve, or funny bone actually is funny, if you go by the definition. This means the joke is wrong & we can stop making it. Right?

So for now, now you know. You’re welcome.

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Filed under Etymology, Nerdy Science Stuff