Bean Counters – Meaning, Origin and Usage

Are you about to go and visit your accountant? If so, you could tell your business partner that you’re off to see the “bean counter,” and they should understand what you’re saying.

This post unpacks the meaning, origin, and use cases for the idiom “bean counters.”

Bean Counters Idiom Meaning

When talking about a “bean counter,” you’re referring to an accountant, bookkeeper, or even a financial advisor. Technically, the phrase refers to someone who is a custodian of money for other people or businesses.

A bean is a cheap commodity, and counting them seems like a silly thing to do. So, the phrase can also mean someone is picky over small things in an attempt to save on costs. Nowadays, people might take offense to you calling them a bean counter, so be careful how you use the term.

Bean Counters Example Usage

“Let’s take a trip to the accounting department and speak with the bean counters about how this project will affect the quarterly results for the company.”

“Ask the bean counters for the financial statements; they should have it on file.”

“The bean counters are the people responsible for handling the financial affairs of the company, not me.”

“I don’t want to grow up to be a bean counter; I can’t stand working with numbers.”

“Call the bean counter and ask them for yesterday’s sales figures.”

“This conference is a wash; there are no interesting people, only these boring bean counters.”

Bean Counters Idiom Origin

There are several suggested origins of the term “bean counters.” However, no language experts are willing to put their heads on a block to give the exact origin of the idiom. Some experts suggest that the expression emerged as a translation from the German language.

The German term “Erbsenzähler” is the likely origin of the expression. “Erbsen” translates to “beans,” and “zähler” translates to “counter.” “Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen in Simplicissimus” was the first text to print the word back in 1668.

Another example of the term’s origin comes from “The Parliamentary Debates of the Australian House of Representatives” in 1928. The text reads, “It is not a bean counter’s bill. There is no attempt to make any savings.”

This use of the term insinuates a “bean counter” is a penny-pinching, thrifty accountant that always has their eyes on the numbers. The phrase gained popularity in the 1930s and 1940s, and it’s still popular in modern society.

Forbes magazine published an article in 1975, referring to accountants as bean counters in the following text.

“a smart, tightfisted and austere ‘bean counter’ accountant from rural Kentucky,”

However, by the 1980s, the use of “bean counters” in the media started to take a derogatory tone. It referred to the person as a “nitpicker” or paying too much attention to details without seeing the big picture.

Phrases Similar to Bean Counters

  • Money men.

Phrases Opposite to Bean Counters

  • Accountants.
  • Bookkeepers.
  • Financial administrators.

What is the Correct Saying?

  • Bean counters.
  • Bean counter.

Ways People May Say Bean Counters Incorrectly

People may use the phrase bean counters in conversations with accountants. Calling an accountant a “bean counter” would likely offend the person, and they might change their opinion of you. Some people may find it amusing, while others may not appreciate the use of the term.

Acceptable Ways to Phrase Bean Counters

You can use “bean counters” when you’re not directly talking to an accountant, bookkeeper, or someone that handles numbers for a profession. The phrase suits use in social and professional conversations, and you’ll use it when referring to retrieving financial information or referring to accountants.

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