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Hill of beans

Q From Spencer James: Recently the expression a hill of beans has been used by Samuel L Jackson in a Barclays commercial and also in a recent Vodafone commercial. But what does it actually mean? Several of us would love to know!

A A hill of beans in colloquial American is a symbol for something of trifling value, as in expressions like “it ain’t worth a hill of beans”. Its most famous appearance, which brought it to the notice of a wide international public, was at the end of the film Casablanca, in which Humphrey Bogart says to Ingrid Bergman, “Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world”.

The mundane bean has for at least eight centuries been regarded as the epitome of worthlessness. Even if you know how many beans make five you are unlikely to consider any one of them to be valuable. Part of the strength of the fairy tale of Jack and the Beanstalk is the contrast between the valueless beans Jack was given in exchange for the cow and the riches revealed by the full-grown beanstalk.

The expanded formula of a hill of beans is American. From the evidence, it seems to have appeared in the modern sense about 1860. It is yet another example of the expansive hyperbole so typical of US English in that period. An example from rather later is in The Indiscretions of Archie by P G Wodehouse: “Here have I been kicking because you weren’t a real burglar, when it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans whether you are or not”.

The original sense of hill of beans was literal. For example, a book on rural affairs by one J J Thomas dated around 1858 used it in describing how to grow lima beans: “A strong wire is stretched from the tops of posts placed at a distance from each other; and to this wire two diverging cords from each hill of beans are attached”. A little drawing alongside makes clear that the writer is referring to the mounding along the row of bean seeds.

It would seem that this is the origin of the phrase, and that it was then applied figuratively to the illogical idea that if one bean was worthless, a whole hill of them would be even more so.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 11 Jan. 2003

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 11 January 2003.