Man’s real best friend.
Dear Word Detective: You’ve explained the word “cool” but the latest rendition seems to be “cool beans.” Do you have any idea why “beans” need to be added to “cool” to mean “excellent” when “cool” alone suffices? Emphasis? But why beans? — Barney Johnson.
Well, why not beans? After all, in the English language, as in life itself, all roads lead to beans. Take the past twenty years of economic life, for instance. First we had the dot-com boom, when many people apparently became rich, and Aeron chairs and four-star restaurants became the rage. Then the “apparently” part kicked in with a vengeance and we found ourselves sitting on packing crates, dining on what? Beans. Then lather, rinse, repeat with the housing boom, but this time we’re plotzed on the curb in our skivvies, chowing down on our little legume pals again. If we’re lucky.
The English language has never lacked beans, that’s for sure. As the most humble of human foods, beans have long been used as symbols of the trivial aspects of existence, often with reference to the negligible value of a single bean, as in the use of “bean counter” to mean someone obsessed with minor details and ignorant of the “big picture.” Even in large numbers the bean gets no respect, and since the 19th century we have used “hill of beans” to mean something of little or no value (“He didn’t care a hill o’ beans fer no gal,” 1901). “Not to know beans” is the nadir of ignorance, and “not to care beans” is the apex of apathy. “Tough beans!” is another way of saying “Tough luck. Who cares?”
But every dog has his day, and even the lowly bean can prove valuable. So we speak of revealing a secret as “spilling the beans” (from the fact that a basketful of beans, once spilled, are difficult or impossible to retrieve). And while “not to know beans” means to be completely ignorant, “to know beans” has, since the 1800s, meant to be knowledgeable and “with it.” Our ambiguous attitude towards beans is reflected in the expression “full of beans,” which in the 19th century meant “lively, full of energy,” but by the 1940s was also being used to mean “full of nonsense.”
“Cool beans” in the sense of “excellent” or “that’s great” apparently originated as college slang in the US during the 1970s, but many people probably picked it up from the 1980s TV sitcom “Full House,” in which one character habitually used the phrase. It was also apparently used in a Cheech and Chong movie during the same period. I think that what we have in “cool beans” is actually an updating, unconscious among its users, of the colloquial US expression “some beans,” which has been used since the mid-19th century to mean “quite something” or “excellent, awesome” (“By golly, you’re some beans in a bar-fight,” 1850).