Monday, June 17, 2013

Knowing Beans About Beans

A customer recently asked if I knew the origin of the expression “doesn’t know beans” (meaning “knows next to nothing”). You’ll have to choose from the following possibilities that vie for linguistic approval.

Some say the phrase originated in early nineetenth century American mercantile stores that stocked a variety of legume called “blue beans.” The outer skin had a bluish tint, but when it was removed, the interior was white. A popular riddle was “How many blue beans make seven white beans?” If you didn’t know the answer was seven, then you didn’t know beans!

In A Hog On Ice and Other Curious Expressions, Charles Earle Funk (yes, that Funk, onetime editor-in-chief of Funk & Wagnalls) suggests that it is likely that “not to know beans” arose from some now-forgotten story in the early nineteenth century. He thinks it may have originated from some dispute over the cowpea, which, despite its name, is related to the bean not the pea.

Another theory is that the idiom refers to Boston, known for its baked beans, where it would be the worst kind of ignorance not to know that the dish must be made of a specific variety of small white bean known as the 'pea bean.'

Finally, some linguists surmise the phrase comes from the British expression "to know how many beans make five,” meaning that one is no fool.

“Not knowing beans” gained literary stature in a verse that appeared in no less learned a journal than the Yale Literary Magazine in 1855: 
            “When our recent Tutor is heard to speak, 
            This truth one certainly gleans, 
            Whatever he knows of Euclid and Greek, 
            In Latin he don't know beans.” 

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is known to be full of beans, and you know what that causes. 

            An old man in Brooklyn (or Queens) 
            Consumed such a big batch of beans, 
                        His toots and his honks 
                        Could be heard in the Bronx, 
            And they had to call out the Marines.

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