Unlike many aspects of the late 90s and early 2000s, the contentious early-Internet phrase "cool beans" has not yet seen its semi-ironic revival. Even spelling it quirkily, as kool beans or kewl beans or cool beanz, yields little by way of cred; to utter "cool beans" does not a cool teen make. Nevertheless, the phrase has persisted, despite being kind of nonsensical and, to many, annoying.
How did a chilled legume come to signify a kind-of-dorky middle ground between "fine" and "great"? Tracking the etymology of the phrase is a difficult enterprise. A cursory Google search offers only speculation and citation—no answers. According to the magazine The Iowan, "cool beans" is like the word "folks": an Iowism for which origins are unknown.
Although it's generally acknowledged that people started saying "cool beans" in the 60s, certain Internet sources cite a line from Cheech and Chong's 1978 stoner comedy Up in Smoke as one of the first records of the phrase in pop culture: Supposedly, when Cheech tells Chong the van they've just driven across the Mexican–American border is made of weed, Chong replies, "Cool beans!" Others dispute this claim, saying the phrase appears in one of their comedy albums but not in the film. (I watched the movie; it's not in there. The guys don't even ever realize their van is made of pot!) In the late 80s and early 90s, DJ Tanner frequently used the phrase in Full House. After that, it became prominent enough that I am writing this article today.
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All of this is well and cute, but it does not answer the question: Whence did "cool beans" come? The US Dry Bean Council did not respond to my requests for comment, but I thought a peruse of their site might give me some answers. The USDBC recommends storing uncooked beans in a "cool, dry area," which would render them cool, both because they would be in a not-hot space and because they would be in an optimal state for later consumption, which is pretty cool. Should you cook your beans and want to store them, the USDBC suggests you refrigerate them, returning them to their cool state. Leftovers also save you money, which is very cool.
In other words, beans can be both literally and figuratively cool. But such humble origins do not an iconic teen slang phrase make. What's more, beans offer many health benefits, which is not something traditionally considered cool.
Stymied and discouraged, I emailed Jonathon Green, one of the world's leading slang lexicographers and the author of Green's Slang Dictionary, a three-volume compendium of over 10.3 million slang words and phrases that costs $625 new on Amazon. At first, even he was uncertain.
"My sense is that it developed from the mid-19th-century 'some beans', used for something seen as impressive," Green told me. "There is also Australia's 'bean': the epitome of fashion."
When I asked Green about "some beans," however, he gave up the (dry) goods. "Some beans," he said, shows up in an 1853 autobiography: "By golly! You're some beans in a bar-fight. I'd rather set to with an old 'he' bar," it says. Green says this "gives [him] the sense" that it might all come from the phrase "full of beans."
What is the etymology of the phrase "full of beans," you ask? Well. According to Green, it is horse-racing jargon, "stable slang," "referring to a "sprightly horse." While in the late 1800s the phrase went on to signify arrogance, "especially through the sudden or recent acquiring of wealth," the phrase originated in the fact that people would feed horses beans to make them run faster.
I didn't know this, but is it cool? I wasn't sure. However, at the end of his correspondence, Green offered a more definitively neat hypothesis for the meaning of 'full of beans': "But does it also refer to the animal being blown along by its 'wind', i.e., farting?"
That's right, folks. The phrase "cool beans" stems from the phrase "some beans," which stems from the phrase "full of beans," which probably stems from horse farts. And that, I think we can all agree, is pretty cool.