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The meaning and origin of the expression: Bean counter

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Bean counter

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A disparaging term for an accountant, or anyone excessively concerned with statistical records or accounts.


Bean counterWhen researching the expression 'bean counter' there is a difficulty - the term has several different meanings. The common usage these days is as a name for a rather pedantic accountant, the implication being that, while most of us are content to buy beans by the bag, fussy accountants want to know exactly how many they are paying for. Before the first hapless accountant was called a 'bean counter' the phrase was also used as the name of a place where beans were sold, especially in the USA where 'pork and bean counters' were commonplace in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Added to that, our inventive predecessors used machines to count beans - and there's no need to tell you what they called them. This variability can lead to some confusion when scanning old newspaper records and other references. Nevertheless, I'll plough on and try to sort the leguminosae from the chaff.

Bean counters, that is, 'counters where beans were sold', came first. The US newspaper the Lewiston Evening Journal referred to these in June 1907:

The Clerk, seeing himself worsted by numbers... walked over to the bean counter where he again busied himself putting up packages for the evening trade.

This was followed by bean counters, that is, 'machines that count beans', which meaning is cited in the Pennsylvania newspaper The New Castle News, March 1916:

City Registry Clerk Stanley Treser has invented a new device. It is known as the bean counter.

Then, lastly, we get to bean counters, that is, 'accountants'. The earliest modern reference I can find to the use of 'bean counter' with this meaning is in the US newspaper The Fort Wayne News And Sentinel, February 1919, in an article titled The Bean Counter:

The son of Josephus has been promoted in the quartermaster's department. "I suppose," remarked the Gentleman at the Adjacent Desk "I suppose that somebody has to count the beans for Colonel Roosevelt's fighting sons."

However, it is likely that the expression wasn't coined in English but is a translation from German.

The German word 'Erbsenzähler' (Erbsen = beans and zähler = counter) was used in print by Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen in Simplicissimus', 1668, with the same 'pedantic accountant' meaning that we now use. It is possible that the English usage came from a later and separate coinage, but unlikely.

The phrase appears in English in Australia soon after the first use in the USA and again this probably ultimately derived from Germany. An example is found in The Parliamentary Debates of the Australian House of Representatives, 1928:

It is not a bean counter's bill. There is no attempt to make any savings.

This insinuation that 'bean counters' were penny-pinching accountants who couldn't see the bigger picture chimes in well with the no-nonsense reputation of Australian politicians. The phrase flourished down under during the 1930/40s before becoming commonplace throughout the English-speaking world later in the 20th century.

[Adopting my previous guise as a bean-counting maths student, I couldn't resist counting the beans in the attached picture. Go on, you know you want to (or click here).]