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shameless pleading

Cool beans

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.

beans09

The Great London Bean Exchange, 1775

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).

5 comments to Cool beans

  • Dave Khan

    Huh. I always assumed “cool beans” was simply the logical complement, or ironic counterpoint, to the exclamation “hot dog!” When “hot dog” became uncool, I would think “cool beans” would be a logical new saying. You know, since hot dogs & beans go together so well. How wonderful that these two phrases should appear in the same issue of The Word Detective!

  • Tami

    2007 series of dr who / S4:E7 / episode # 48 / the dr’s daughter / donna noble says to General Cobb; “Oi, oi, oi. All right. Cool the beans, Rambo!” – seemed to mean “Hold on!”
    I haven’t found any references related to that phrase though Thanks.. Any info?

  • sunbelt57

    I first heard “cool beans” during the dot com days and thought it was a reference to Java Beans: Beans in Java are reusable software components of the Java programming language.

  • This is the only sensible article on the Web about this most irritating of all phrases! I know someone who says it all the time and I absolutely loathe it. I don’t think the Cheech and Chong thing is true though: I found that citation repeated around the Web originating from an article where a supposed piece of dialogue between Cheech and Chong was used as an example. “this car is made entirely of weed” / “cool beans”. Elsewhere this has been repeated and the film given as 1978′s “Up in Smoke” but the whole joke of that movie was that Cheech and Chong didn’t realize that the car (a van actually) was made of weed, so I don’t see how they could have had this verbal exchange. I call bull!

  • sage

    Uh, absolutely not. The term began as an intentional quasi-experiment in originating a colloquialism. It was as conducted by three students of New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, New Mexico. It was one of a number of attempts between 1985-1988. The basis was anecdotal success in coining a number of other farcical colloquialisms. Success was to be determined by the earliest occasion of encounter of the term in popular culture language, literature, or audio-visual media, which encounter found the expression to be repeated on either US coast, preferably from New York or Southern California. This, one of the very successful attempts, took well under two years.

    Why? Because, as one of them noted, “In ‘On the Road,’ Jack Kerouac referred to Las Cruces as ‘the crossroads of America.’ If it is, we should be able to start all kinds of bullshit expressions here.” Maybe Kerouac was right. Maybe it’s not all about tremendous populations; maybe it’s about … location, location, location.

    As a side note, another acquaintance of the three NMSU students was a former Las Crucen who was part of a similar quasi-experiment, in Austin, Tx, which promulgated the rumour that the actor who played Paul in the t.v. sitcom “The Wonder Years” went on to become goth-pop star Marilyn Manson. At just over three years, this rumour was slower to succeed, but much more entertaining.

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