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shameless pleading





Old bean

Not to mention the landlord who insisted on calling me “Morris Evans.”

Dear Word Detective: I have a British friend who refers to me as “old bean.” Where does “old bean” come from? — Chris.

Hmm. How long has this been going on? I ask only because if someone were routinely addressing me with a term I didn’t understand, I’d be pawing through a dictionary toot sweet. Then again, I understand the tendency to let this sort of thing slide. Back when I was a child and the name “Evan” was exceedingly rare in the US, teachers and other grownups had serious problems getting my name right. They either pronounced it weirdly (usually “Eee-von”) or, on at least one occasion, insisted that I must have misheard my parents and that my name was actually “Kevin.” I gave up arguing after that. Now I answer to anything short of “Lassie.”

“Old bean” is a classic British familiar form of address, roughly equivalent to an American’s greeting of “buddy,” “pal” “friend,” or, at least lately, “dude.” It doesn’t actually mean anything, although to American ears it certainly sounds slightly odd.

Part of what probably strikes Americans as weird about “old bean” is that it doesn’t fit with any of the uses of “bean” with which we are familiar. A “bean” in the literal sense is, of course, the seed of a leguminous plant (or another plant product that resembles one, such as a coffee bean). Beans being perhaps our most humble but infinitely useful food, it’s also not surprising that “bean” has been used in a wide variety of figurative senses for hundreds of years.

One of the earliest instances of bean-as-metaphor, dating back to the 13th century, was “bean” used to mean an item of little value, a sense which lives on in such expressions as “a hill of beans,” “not to know beans” (knowing nothing useful) and “bean counter,” meaning one consumed by meaningless details and thus ignorant of the truly important things.

But beans also served as a symbol of hardship and humiliation. “To give a person beans,” in the early 19th century US, was to punish or deal with them severely, probably as a reference to the unpleasantness of punishment with a diet consisting of only beans. For reasons that are not entirely clear, the use of “old bean” as a form of address seems to have sprung from this sense in the early 20th century. My guess is that it began as a term of mock-commiseration, as if the one addressed were routinely “given beans” or constantly put upon. It is also possible that “old bean” partly invokes the use of “bean” as slang for the human head (and, by extension, a person), which appeared at about the same time in baseball jargon (e.g., “bean ball,” a pitch thrown at the batter’s head) but quickly percolated into general usage.

In any case, “old bean” was actually a common friendly form of address in the US in the 1920s, which is slightly surprising since it is now throughly obsolete over here and regarded as a quintessential (if somewhat corny and affected) Britishism.

17 comments to Old bean

  • Victoria

    I always thought “old bean” was a play on the term human being, which is sometimes playfully mispronounced “human bean”.

  • Isaac

    In Hong Kong, it is customary for children to refer to their fathers as “Low Dow” (In Cantonese) which translates directely to “Old Bean” is it possible there is a link between the two terms, given tha

  • Richard

    Any American out there keen to expose him- or herself to an onslaught of similarly quaint and aristocratic British English slang should consult P.G. Wodehouse. I recommend ‘The Inimitable Jeeves’ as an introductory text. Wodehouse frequently uses the expression ‘old bean’ as a form of address alongside other inanimate objects such as ‘old top’ and ‘old teapot’. He also uses the word bean to mean head, or brains. One of my favourites, however, is the adjective ‘rum’ and its derivative ‘rummy’ which are used to describe something peculiar, strange or out of the ordinary. In my opinion these are all relics which should be brought back to life in everyday conversation, as they are chock solid with character, which seems to be lacking in the digital age, with its tendency to abbreviate everything to txt spk.
    Pip pip.

  • Missouri Love Company

    I remember using the expression “Old Bean” with my high school friends because I heard it used in movies. It was fun to call everyone by the first name and add Bean behind it. 20 years later, my friends see me and and call me Tina Bean. It sort of my signature.

  • karol

    Minor point. I would suggest that its quintessentialy English not British. And historically English upper class at that.

    Great Britain includes Scotland and Wales and even in bygone days I can’t imagine you would have natives of those two countries using this phrase.

  • Bean means woman in Gaelic – see – search origin of QHEEN and this info will show up. Maybe it began as an alternative to an affectionate ‘old girl’.

  • sheegah

    You didn’t mean “toot sweet”. The expression you were going for is “toute de suite”.

  • Wooten Schmitz

    My husband and I loved the way “old bean” was used in the Hitchcock movie “Suspicion.” We named our wonderful mutt “Old Bean,” and he really was a swell chap. May he rest in peace.

  • Paladin

    It was always my understanding (not necessarily correct) that “Old Bean” was used as a form of affectionate address for friends with which one attended school.


  • Dave

    My grandfather was in the British Royal Navy in the 1920s. He received several small, silver trophies for different shipboard competitions. One of these was a miniature loving cup – a teardrop shaped cup on a footed stem – with graceful, curved handles that curled up and above the top of the loving cup and down to where they were attached 3/4 of the way down the side of the cup. It is about four inches tall. It has a silver lid, a bit more than an inch in diameter, that had been clamped down to top of the cup by the bending of the handles onto the edges of the lid of the cup. To look at it, you wouldn’t think that the handles were bent, the part of ear-like handles that was attached to the top of the loving cup was pulled slightly towards the center of the lid. It could have been done just by pinching the two handles together. When I discovered this, I managed to open the lid, quite easily, and inside there was a kidney bean. I replaced the lid and adjusted the handles to secure the lid. I always wondered if some Royal Navy tradition was the source of the term “old bean.” found this page googling just that.

  • Alan

    V M Yeates in his 1934 novel of WW1 air combat attributes the invention of the phrase ‘old bean’ to one of the characters in his squadron. Though a novel, Yeates served in such circumstances (achieving 6 attributed kills) and his characters are seen as traceable. Whether his claim that the invention of the phrase is true, the book is very much well worth a read, my old tins of fruit!

  • Mimi

    Like the above commenter, in cantonese (language of some parts of southern China and in Hong Kong) lo-dow meaning an affectionate term for a man is translated literally to “old bean”. Lo-Dow is used towards husbands and older men. Similar to how wives would refer to their husband as “my old man”. Or a friend might ask “how’s the old man doing”? Being that there is not much history supporting that this term “old bean” came from the English/British maybe it originated from China (possible through the Silk Road)

  • When I was a child, as it were, My dearest mother would use this term when I would look or seem down trodden, or sad. It was so very comforting to hear her say these words to me, “That’s my ole bean” and press my head into her ample bosom.
    I don’t think I will ever experience that feeling of comfort again in this existence. Thank you.

  • M.bell

    Being used around the twenties, maybe it came from H.G. Wells story ‘Kipps’.
    The kindly lawyer who grants his inheritance is named Bean, and referred to as old bean.

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