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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.


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).

47 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!

    • Suzanne Rosa-Bella Trimble

      Hear Hear Sistah! I can’t stand it either! Doesn’t whoever is saying it feel incredibly cheesy? (no pun intended) and where did that descriptive come from I wonder, maybe when people discovered cheese could be melted and um….the idea of gooeyness of cheese simply transferred over to elements of pop culture and so on….I know you would figure it out in an instant or make out into a joke! Wouldn’t that be cool beans! Argh! Oh no! Oh Diana…..I wish you and me were together right now hanging out and talking about whatever took our interest, which was always endless with you!
      As far as Cheech and Chong, I don’t see what beans would have to do with anything or why they would be cool. The rest of the explanation above is indeed sensible. The “spilling the beans” explanation made particular sense. The lowly bean does indeed appear to have become a symbol of insignificance. Does it all amount to a hill of beans I ask?
      I love you sister….

  • 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.

    • Amazon

      Sage. It ain’t THAT serious!

    • Ian

      Was the notable anonymous NMSU student that “coined” the phrase coincidentally from northwest Ohio? I recall the phrase “cool beans” already in use in the Toledo area at that time. I had then thought it was a combination of LL Bean company and LL Cool J names to generate, first, LL Cool Beans, which was then abbreviated to just cool beans. I doubt I was the first person to come to that conclusion, but you never know… but I’d bet my donuts to your dollars that your secret student was from Ohio. ;)

    • Richard.II

      “Uh, absolutely not.” Since you are so absolutely sure that the OP and many of the commenters are wrong, you should cite sources of your claims. Otherwise, you’re viewed as having (unwittingly?) propagated an urban legend–ironically, while unveiling another urban legend about Marilyn Manson in the same comment.
      Especially since other commenters recall using this phrase earlier than 1985, which is the earliest possible date per your anecdote.
      Another bit of evidence that goes against your claim is that there is a juvenile fiction book published in 1985 using the term. (see here:,+wow!+Cool+beans!%E2%80%99+I+whispered.%22) Even if we take the earliest year of your range (1985), it is almost beyond belief for a book using it to be published the very same year.

    • Mike

      Hey, the term ‘cool beans’ was used in the 60’s. It was even in Archie comics in the late 60’s, as they tried to appeal to a more Mod generation.

  • Bob

    I first heard the expression in the mid 80’s. It is not in any way related to the dot com revolution of the 90’s.

    • Dot

      Same here. As someone who grew up in the 80s, my friends and I used to say it all the time, and nary a one of us owned a computer, much less used one as a communication device.

      • I confer!!! As a person that grew up in the 80’s we all used it as well and we did not have internet then….I do remember it coming from a movie though but I did not think it was cheech and chong but I cannot remember for the life of me…hence the reason I found this posting :/

        • Richard.II

          Sounds like you “concur”–not “confer.” (perhaps I’m niggling, but this IS a website about word meanings after all.)

  • Carl Vince

    Cool Beams!Y’all are gettin’ it wrong.

  • Ainsley

    My mother used to say “Cool Beans” all the time. I cannot remember if she started using this phrase in the 60’s or 70’s, but definitely was using it long before 1985. My point is that if it was invented by a college student who wanted to see if it would catch on, he or she coincidentally invented a phrase that was already in use.

  • vinnie

    My boss uses ‘cool beans’ often so i came here to find out more about

  • Ryan

    Thank you Diana! I place “Cool Beans” in the same realm of “Irregardless” and am taunted by the term/phrase daily. I can honestly say that I have to fight back the strong urge to vomit every time I hear them. I do not care where it came from or why people say it. I simply have no time for such a ridiculous expression and only pray that those who do say it take a long hard look in the mirror, ask forgiveness, and tirelessly work for the rest of their lives to expunge the phrase from their “vocabulary”.

  • Sekaia

    I heard this growing up watching the cartoon Jumanji

  • Marko

    i always thought it may have something to do with cooking beans or coffee beans, therefore ready to consume. Oh well, that is why this isn’t my website.

  • Iron

    This is either a joke article or speculation. No real etymology here.

  • Bill

    I first heard this phrase in the early 90’s and hated it but then it grew on me. now I say it all the time……….. cool beans

  • Eric

    I think it might have come with the mexican jumping beans in the 1970s. Those were the coolest thing ever back in the day, and if they were cool nothin happened, but put them in your hand and they start doing stuff.

  • Daryl

    Cool beans is a phrase I like to use.

  • Razorweiss

    I’ve heard this in Adam Sandler’s new movie “The Ridiculous 6″ (new for the late 2015). Taylor Lautner’s character, Lil’ Pete, says it. One of the characters was portrayed as Abraham Lincoln’s personal bodyguard who failed to protect him. So this was pretty much 1845 boundaries. Of course, we don’t know if the director or Netflix production personnel had in them to search for the roots of its usage. In a nutshell, I partially digress just to semi-focus on this smidgen of trivia. Yeah.

  • Laurie Detwiler

    I remember first hearing my friend saying it (and I loved it) in 1977 in Southern California. She came from a big surfing family and I always assumed it was a surf culture phrase. When I moved to the east coast around that time, no one in high school had heard of or used that phrase.

  • Morris Iloputaife

    Somebody just said that as a reply to my message and I decided to look it up. Cool bean!

  • K-Dub

    I thought I had coined it myself, without knowing how or why. It just popped out. Then later, when I heard others using it, I was surprised. I wondered how others could come up with such a strange combination, independently. Now, I know I must have heard it subconsciously somewhere. I mean – It’s not natural to come up with such a phrase on one’s own.

  • Mark

    Um, has anyone seen the sitcom from 1959 “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” Bob Denver, playing “Maynard G Krebs” used the phrase.

  • Mark

    Huh, interesting. I thought it came from a tv show in the 80’s, The Adventures of Beans Baxter. He would do something cool and his sidekick would say, Cool Beans!

  • David K. M. Klaus

    Articles such as this generally remind me of Sister Sistro, the sister on The Flying Nun who was teaching herself English by reading the “Dictionary of American Slang.”

    Twenty-five years later that actress was still making people laugh while maintaining a straight face on Will & Grace. I’ll leave it to you to determine for yourself who this is.

  • Lamont Cranston

    Though I’m contributing to this thread a bit late, I think it’s quite possible that the tactile sensation of immersing your hands into dried beans is largely pleasant and a somewhat, and since beans are fairly dense and frequently stored at room temperature, they feel smooth and cool when you thrust your hands into them. There’s a similar expression that I’ve heard and used more than a few times which goes something like: “that’s as cool as the other side of the pillow.” Both expressions are I think illustrative examples of grounding the now-common and semi-ambiguous ‘cool’ with somewhat-common practical examples of ‘cool.’

  • Logan Johnson

    Cool beans

  • Lowly Bean Eater

    Excellent. So enjoyed this. Yes! Great insight and I so appreciated your knowledge and the story of the Lowly bean. I really relate, as I am really poor and I have to eat beans mostly thru the month to have food, so I have a real, personal connection to these meanings/stories associated with the evolution to cool beans. Language. They are an abstract synonym? For life. Cool beans.

  • Dean

    Cool Beans
    I use this term quite often as a replacement for more common terms such as excellent, fantastic, awesome and great. The first time I heard this used was in a 1967 cartoon called Speed Racer. Kuior Mifune and his pet and or friend Chim Chim would hide in the trunk of the car. When something went well for the characters he would yell out Cool Beans with excitement. I then discovered it in the 1935 movie adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, a movie we have all seen every year since childhood.
    When Scrooge awakes from his nightmare and gives his maid a five shilling a week raise, she excitedly responds with cool beans, and bobs your uncle. This term may have been used commonly in the 1840’s and earlier.

  • Russ

    I just picture someone coming from the heat spotting a cool bean salad in the fridge. Cool beans was born man

  • Maureen George

    With all the hypersensitivity over race and color of skin, a friend who had been insulted intentionally by a coworker was defended by his boss who had the offender fired. But in a subsequent conversation with the person she defended she said the words “cool beans” to him about something and he was totally confused. He had to ask a few trusted friends if this was an insult (e.g. beaner) or something else. He felt so relieved to hear it wasn’t an insult but to my 66 yr old ears it was so funny that it could’ve ever been taken that way. Language is so interesting and entertaining! Thanks for this great article!!

  • Phil

    Ya see, I would argue that “cool beans” can sometimes, but does not implicitly mean, “awesome!” Or “excellent!” like simply “Cool!” might mean. Naturally it all depends on the context and emotions behind it, but the “cool” in cool beans is more like calm or figurative chill, “it’s all cool,” “keep your cool,” as in not hot/boiling/volitile, rather than interesting/unique, as in “That colorful talking parrot on a motorcycle is cool!” The usage of cool beans is more of a situation or agreement descriptive meaning “it’s ok”/”sounds good”/ “whatever(is clever)”/”no prob” or even “your welcome”, basically i don’t care and it is allowable, thus the situation is manageable or resolved.

    “Thanks for seeing me on such short notice”
    “Cool beans, I’m just chillin'”

    “Hey I’m on the way there, but I’ll be 10 minutes late.”
    “Sure, cool beans”
    “I’m short 5 bucks, is it cool if I hit ya back next time?”
    “Ya, cool beans, just get here and buy this weed”

    So in part I’d say that the trivial older sense of beans applies to cool beans, like “no biggie” or “small potatoes” so etymology-wise it seems like a natural progression from the ’50s “golly gee whiz” “hot dog” cool beans with the jazzy beatnik smooth “cool kat” landing with the “it’s all good” meaning through the worthlessness and banality of the common bean.

    That “cool kat” cool is all about composure, so to say cool beans is like “my composure is one of minmal agreeable amusement after the delineation of a benign quandary and thankful to be moving on from the foresought resolution that I would metaphorically compare the excitement of to uncooked beans in a pot of tepid water”

    Haha, after cool beans are out of the way, “now we’re really cooking with gas.”

  • Ginger Lee Frank

    “Cool beans” was a phrase first used in the 1920s to popularize iced coffee as a summertime drink in the US by the Joint Coffee Trade Commission… (okay, so I made that up – inventing etymology can be cool beans).

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