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I grew up in Texas in the 60s. My dad grew up in Waco and moved to New Jersey during World War II. He contributed may German phrases to our lives. My mom was born in central Texas, but her dad was a manager for Sherwin Williams, so they lived all over the South.

My mother has used the phrase as long as I can remember, "you did a bean!" This meant that you did something really smart. I remember my grandmother saying this, but I don't recall anyone else. My mother is 95 and remembers hearing this when she was a girl.

I'd like to know if anyone has ever heard this, and what the origin of the phrase is.

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    Where did your grandmother grow up and what's her nationality? – Mazura Jul 31 '15 at 1:31
  • I do not recall ever hearing this expression. – Hot Licks Jul 31 '15 at 1:53
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    I've heard "That's using the old bean" which means "that's a clever idea", but never "did a bean". – TRomano Jul 31 '15 at 2:12
  • Could it be based on French le bien? – rogermue Jul 31 '15 at 4:59
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There is a slang expression in German: "nicht die Bohne" ("not the bean"), which means "certainly not", "not in the least","not one little bit", "not the least in the world", "don't care at all", and also "not give a damn". (See:https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/nicht_die_Bohne, Language: A Linguistic Introduction to History, Verbatim, Volume 8, 1982, Nicht die Bohne: zu Thomas Manns Werk Wälsungenblut, The Black and Red - Volume 7, Page 108, 1903, Releases the Silesian Society of Folklore, Volumes 27-29, 1926)

So, reversing these meanings, to say that someone "did a bean" could mean to produce something that was "certainly so" or "in the highest regard" or "what we care about most" or "the most significant". Therefore, it isn't so much about "being smart" as "being significant/important".

This interpretation is tentative, because I could not find any German reference to the phrase translates as "You had a bean" or similar.

Background:

Waco, TX is in McClennan County, which is next to Bell County, which had a high concentration of German immigrants from Upper Silesia (now part of Poland). I can not find any connection between Silesia and this particular expression, so it may or may not have originated in Silesia.

  • It is common to all (modern) Germanic languages that bean acts as a squatitive. It does that in English, too: you can say “he doesn’t know beans” or “I don’t care a bean”, and ‘not a bean’ used to be (though it isn’t really anymore) a fairly straightforward emphatic negative in English, just like in German. But the apparently positive meaning attributed to the phrase in this question seems quite different—there’s no squatitivity about it at all, and it ‘feels’ like an unnatural derivation in any Germanic language. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 30 '15 at 14:35

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