The Grammarphobia Blog

Spill proof

Q: I’m wondering why we “spill” secrets. It seems such an odd verb to use when we mean “tell.”

A: This use of “spill” originated  in World War I-era American slang, though a similar usage showed up briefly across the Atlantic in the 16th century.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example of the 20th-century usage is from a master of slanguage, Ring Lardner. Here’s the citation from his novel Gullible’s Travels (1917):

“ ‘Go ahead and spill it,’ I says.” (We found another one in the same book: “I promised her I wouldn’t spill none o’ the real details.”)

In this sense, the OED says, to “spill” means “to utter (words); to confess or divulge (facts).”

The usage soon caught on, and variations appeared. Another American slang phrase, “to spill the beans” (meaning “to reveal a secret”), showed up within a couple of years, the OED says.

Oxford’s earliest example of this one is from Thomas H. Holmes’s novel The Man From Tall Timber (1919): “ ‘Mother certainly has spilled the beans!’ thought Stafford in vast amusement.”

And another variation, “to spill one’s guts,” meaning “to divulge as much as one can, to confess,” came along in the Roaring Twenties, according to citations in the OED.

The dictionary’s first example is from Francis Charles Coe’s underworld novel Me—Gangster (1927). “ ‘Throw him out, eh?’ the old man snarled. … ‘Throw him out an’ have him spill his guts about the whole gang?’ ”

So when we use “spill” to mean confess or give away a secret—to pour out something that was held in—we’re using a century-old American slang term.

But in a quirk of linguistic history, it turns out that Americans weren’t the first to use “spill” in this figurative way. The OED records an isolated example from 16th-century England.

This line appeared in Familiar Epistles, Edward Hellowes’s 1574 translation of a collection of letters by the Spanish friar Antonio de Guevara: “Although it be a shame to spill it, I will not leaue to say that which … his friends haue said vnto me.”

In this citation, the OED says, “spill” is used figuratively to mean “to divulge, let out.”

The volume of Guevara’s Epistolas Familiares that Hellowes translated was first printed in Spanish in 1539. This raises a question: Were the Spanish already using their verb for “spill” in a figurative way to mean “divulge”?  

We located the passage in the original Spanish, and it begins, “Aunque es vergüenza de lo decir …”—literally, “Although it’s a shame to say it ….”

So Hellowes’s figurative use of “spill” for Guevara’s decir (to say) was original.

Interestingly, the English word “spill,” which comes from old Germanic sources, didn’t always mean to pour out.

When it entered Old English around the year 950, it meant to kill, destroy, put to death, ruin, overthrow, wreck, and so on.

Those hair-raising meanings are now obsolete or archaic, but they survived poetically for many centuries. 

Here’s an example from Thomas Taylor’s A Commentarie vpon the Epistle of S. Paul Written to Titus (1612): “Caring no more in their fury to spill a man, then to kill a dogge.”

How did a word for “destroy” come to mean overflow or pour out?

Sometime in the early 12th century, “spill” took on another meaning, the OED says: “to shed (blood).”

And a couple of centuries later, the OED says, that sense expanded to mean “to allow or cause (a liquid) to fall, pour, or run out (esp. over the edge of the containing vessel), usually in an accidental or wasteful manner; to lose or waste in this way.”

We still use “spill” in this way. We’ve also used the noun “spill” since the mid-19th century to mean a tumble or a fall, as in “He had a spill from his horse” or “She took a spill on the steps.”

Another handy usage, the adjective “spill-proof,” came along in the 1920s. This more recent OED example is from an ad that ran in Glamour magazine in 1963: “New spray mist! Unbreakable. Spill-proof…. Intimate by Revlon.”

In short, “spill” has come a long way.

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