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.

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