Reply
 
Thread Tools Display Modes
  #1  
Old 12-02-2011, 06:58 AM
HeyHomie's Avatar
HeyHomie is offline
Charter Member
 
Join Date: Sep 1999
Location: Viburnum, MO
Posts: 9,740

Flipping a Coin: Heads & Tails, in Other Languages


Does the English idiom "Heads or tails" when flipping a coin (to randomly determine between two options, when such a need arises) exist in other languages? Do Spanish speakers call "cabezas o colas"? Germans "kopf oder schwanz"? Etc. etc. etc.

NOTE: I got the German from Google translate, so if I'm wrong, blame Google.

Last edited by HeyHomie; 12-02-2011 at 06:58 AM. Reason: Typos
  #2  
Old 12-02-2011, 07:04 AM
minor7flat5's Avatar
minor7flat5 is offline
Charter Member
 
Join Date: Sep 2002
Location: Trenton, NJ
Posts: 4,861
I believe it's cara ou coroa in Portuguese: "Face or Crown"
  #3  
Old 12-02-2011, 07:04 AM
Heracles's Avatar
Heracles is online now
Member
 
Join Date: Jul 2009
Location: Southern Québec, Canada
Posts: 1,534
The French expression is "pile ou face". The "face" refers to heads. I'm not sure where "pile" comes from. Curse you for making me wonder.

In Québécois slang there's also the less-PC "tête ou b*tch". The literal translation of "head" is "tête".
  #4  
Old 12-02-2011, 07:10 AM
constanze is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Aug 2006
Location: Munich, Germany
Posts: 5,209
Quote:
Originally Posted by HeyHomie View Post
Germans "kopf oder schwanz"? Etc. etc. etc.

NOTE: I got the German from Google translate, so if I'm wrong, blame Google.
It's "Kopf oder Zahl" (Head or Number) in German. The German word Schwanz means both tail of an animal or slang for penis, so you might want to avoid using wrong translations like Google. (And I am blaming Google for not knowing established phrases. Dumb thing.)

Why is it tails in English, anyway? Head of the King or Queen on one side, number of value on the other side - makes sense. Later, it's a picture on one side, number smaller. But why tails?
  #5  
Old 12-02-2011, 07:27 AM
willthekittensurvive? is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Oct 2007
Location: I am here
Posts: 1,308
In dutch its "Kop of Munt" translate into heads or coin
  #6  
Old 12-02-2011, 07:48 AM
septimus's Avatar
septimus is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Dec 2009
Location: The Land of Smiles
Posts: 19,104
In Thai, one side is หัว (Head) and the other ก้อย (Little finger, little). Google translates ก้อย to "reverse side", but my informants (two Eurasian teenagers raised in Thailand by Mrs. Septimus and myself) are unaware of any "reverse side" usage except with coins.
  #7  
Old 12-02-2011, 08:33 AM
PacifistPorcupine is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Jun 2011
Posts: 576
It probably relates more to the local currency than the language. And maybe not even the current local currency. When I was growing up in Mexico, it was Eagle or Sun. All Mexican coins had an eagle on one side, but I don't recall any that had a Sun on the other.
  #8  
Old 12-02-2011, 08:43 AM
Leaffan's Avatar
Leaffan is offline
Member
 
Join Date: Aug 2005
Location: Ottawa
Posts: 24,253
Quote:
Originally Posted by Heracles View Post
The French expression is "pile ou face". The "face" refers to heads. I'm not sure where "pile" comes from. Curse you for making me wonder.

In Québécois slang there's also the less-PC "tête ou b*tch". The literal translation of "head" is "tête".
tête ou b*tch

I don't understand this.

If tête is referring to the Queen, then who's the bitch? Or, conversely, if the Bitch is the Queen, then why is the reverse side being called tête?

Last edited by Leaffan; 12-02-2011 at 08:43 AM.
  #9  
Old 12-02-2011, 08:43 AM
Paul in Qatar is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Jul 2002
Location: Dammam, Saudi Arabia
Posts: 12,591
In Hebrew, it is (or was) "Crowns or feathers" based on the obverse and reverse of the coins.
  #10  
Old 12-02-2011, 09:24 AM
Balthisar is offline
Charter Member
 
Join Date: Nov 2000
Location: Southeast Michigan, USA
Posts: 11,041
Mexico: "Aguila o sol?" That is, "the eagle or the sun?" Because, well, traditionally there was one on one side of a coin, and the other on the other.
  #11  
Old 12-02-2011, 10:13 AM
Silver Tyger is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Jul 2006
Location: Between my ears
Posts: 4,277
Quote:
Originally Posted by constanze View Post
Why is it tails in English, anyway? Head of the King or Queen on one side, number of value on the other side - makes sense. Later, it's a picture on one side, number smaller. But why tails?
Generally what is being flipped is a quarter. Until the state quarters started it was George Washington on the front and an eagle on the reverse. Why 'heads or tails' rather than 'heads or eagle'? WAG: they're the same number of syllables, and tails sounds like a good reverse of heads, being on the opposite end of a critter.
  #12  
Old 12-02-2011, 10:31 AM
constanze is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Aug 2006
Location: Munich, Germany
Posts: 5,209
Quote:
Originally Posted by Silver Tyger View Post
Generally what is being flipped is a quarter. Until the state quarters started it was George Washington on the front and an eagle on the reverse. Why 'heads or tails' rather than 'heads or eagle'? WAG: they're the same number of syllables, and tails sounds like a good reverse of heads, being on the opposite end of a critter.
Are you sure it's an AE expression, and not a general English one? Because otherwise, you need an explanation before US quarters.

After all, the German Mark didn't usually show heads, either. The expression has been around some time, so it's based on old coins.

Last edited by constanze; 12-02-2011 at 10:32 AM.
  #13  
Old 12-02-2011, 10:52 AM
pulykamell is offline
Charter Member
 
Join Date: May 2000
Location: SW Side, Chicago
Posts: 46,912
Quote:
Originally Posted by constanze View Post
Are you sure it's an AE expression, and not a general English one? Because otherwise, you need an explanation before US quarters.

After all, the German Mark didn't usually show heads, either. The expression has been around some time, so it's based on old coins.
You are correct. "Tails" in the sense of the non-head side of a coin, has been around since around 1680, according to etymonline.com:

Quote:
tail (n.1) [...] Meaning "reverse side of a coin" is from 1680s;
That said, "tails" sounds like one logical opposite of "head" to me, so it being used for the backside of a coin doesn't sound odd to me at all.
  #14  
Old 12-02-2011, 10:55 AM
Indian is offline
Minus Red
 
Join Date: Sep 2007
Location: India
Posts: 1,778
It exists in at least 5 indian ( Asian) regional languages I know.
  #15  
Old 12-02-2011, 10:59 AM
obfusciatrist is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Mar 2000
Location: Oakland, CA, USA
Posts: 5,629
It is an old phrase in English.

Here's a math book printed in 1776 that uses tails to refer to the back side of a coin when talking about the possible outcomes of tossing 11 halfpence.

Here's a play, "The Atheist" by Thomas Otway, originally written in 1684 (the linked copy printed in 1726) that also uses the phrase:

Quote:
Now I may do by my mistresses as the boys do by their farthings, hustle 'em in a hat together, and go to Heads and Tails for 'em...
So for origins of the English phrase I think it has to go back to England and their coins.
  #16  
Old 12-02-2011, 11:02 AM
Giles's Avatar
Giles is offline
Charter Member
 
Join Date: Apr 2004
Location: Newcastle NSW
Posts: 12,927
Quote:
Originally Posted by Leaffan View Post
tête ou b*tch

I don't understand this.

If tête is referring to the Queen, then who's the bitch? Or, conversely, if the Bitch is the Queen, then why is the reverse side being called tête?
That sounds like it comes from "tête-bêche", sometimes used in English to refer to a pair of stamps printed upside down relative to each other.
  #17  
Old 12-02-2011, 11:02 AM
Heracles's Avatar
Heracles is online now
Member
 
Join Date: Jul 2009
Location: Southern Québec, Canada
Posts: 1,534
Quote:
Originally Posted by Leaffan View Post
tête ou b*tch

I don't understand this.

If tête is referring to the Queen, then who's the bitch? Or, conversely, if the Bitch is the Queen, then why is the reverse side being called tête?
That makes two of us. But "tête" is the queen's side, I'm pretty sure.

ETA: I like Giles' hypothesis.

Last edited by Heracles; 12-02-2011 at 11:04 AM.
  #18  
Old 12-02-2011, 11:07 AM
obfusciatrist is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Mar 2000
Location: Oakland, CA, USA
Posts: 5,629
And just because old cites by famous people are liked: Alexander Pope used it in 1727 in "Peri Bathous, or the Art of Sinking in Poetry," the essay which introduced the word bathos.

Last edited by obfusciatrist; 12-02-2011 at 11:07 AM.
  #19  
Old 12-02-2011, 11:38 AM
SpoilerVirgin is offline
Charter Member
 
Join Date: May 2000
Location: An antique land
Posts: 7,068
Quote:
Originally Posted by constanze View Post
It's "Kopf oder Zahl" (Head or Number) in German. The German word Schwanz means both tail of an animal or slang for penis, so you might want to avoid using wrong translations like Google.
But "head or penis?" would make flipping a coin so much more interesting.
  #20  
Old 12-02-2011, 12:00 PM
Alessan's Avatar
Alessan is online now
Guest
 
Join Date: Jul 2000
Location: Tel Aviv
Posts: 24,142
In Hebrew (in Israel) it's "Etz o Pali" - "Tree or Pali", with "Pali" being short for "Palestine". My guess is that it refers to a specific coin that was in circulation sometime between 1918 and 1948.

Anyway, the Tree is the picture, and the Pali is the number.
  #21  
Old 12-02-2011, 12:06 PM
Alessan's Avatar
Alessan is online now
Guest
 
Join Date: Jul 2000
Location: Tel Aviv
Posts: 24,142
Follow-up: a quick Googling gave me this.
  #22  
Old 12-02-2011, 12:15 PM
constanze is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Aug 2006
Location: Munich, Germany
Posts: 5,209
Quote:
Originally Posted by pulykamell View Post
That said, "tails" sounds like one logical opposite of "head" to me, so it being used for the backside of a coin doesn't sound odd to me at all.
But you don't know if the coins used at that time showed any tails?

I'm afraid I can't see the logic in calling a backside tails. Humans don't have tails, they have a butt, so it would either be "head or butt" or "Head or feet" if you want logically. Usually it seems to be what's on the other side of the coin, though - "Heads or number" or "Head or [whatever]".
  #23  
Old 12-02-2011, 12:27 PM
pulykamell is offline
Charter Member
 
Join Date: May 2000
Location: SW Side, Chicago
Posts: 46,912
Quote:
Originally Posted by constanze View Post
But you don't know if the coins used at that time showed any tails?

I'm afraid I can't see the logic in calling a backside tails. Humans don't have tails, they have a butt, so it would either be "head or butt" or "Head or feet" if you want logically. Usually it seems to be what's on the other side of the coin, though - "Heads or number" or "Head or [whatever]".
*shrug* To me, it doesn't seem odd at all. "Tail" is, indeed, used for "butt" in English sometimes. "Tail" as an opposite to "head" is common in English. The "head" of a line vs the "tail" of a line. A passage from Deuteronomy 28:13 "And the LORD shall make thee the head, and not the tail; and thou shalt be above only, and thou shalt not be beneath." " I had never actually thought of "head" and "tail" as literally meaning a head and tail, but rather meaning "front" and "back."

Besides, the more interesting question for me is why is it always in the plural?
  #24  
Old 12-02-2011, 12:40 PM
Dr. Drake is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Jan 2006
Location: Vancouver, BC
Posts: 6,253
Ffynes-Clinton's Welsh Vocabulary of the Bangor District gives "cing ta brits." Cing is the English word "king" (the Welsh for "king" is brenin and he defines brits as "'the figure of Britannia on the reverse side of copper coins'; only used in phrases connected with tossing coins" but since it is pronounced bridge I wonder if it's "king or bridge" — anyone know if there was a British coin with a bridge on the back in the Victorian era? I know there was a Britannia, but that seems far-fetched. Otherwise, it seems to be "tu blaen neu tu chwith," literally "front side or back side." Chwith is "left" and by extension both "back" and "wrong, strange" (cf. sinister).
  #25  
Old 12-02-2011, 02:13 PM
Horatio Hellpop is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Aug 2002
Location: Jeju-si, S. Korea
Posts: 9,499
Quote:
Originally Posted by PacifistPorcupine View Post
It probably relates more to the local currency than the language. And maybe not even the current local currency. When I was growing up in Mexico, it was Eagle or Sun. All Mexican coins had an eagle on one side, but I don't recall any that had a Sun on the other.
It has a Mayan calendar shaped like the Sun on the reverse side. There's a Cantinflas movie called Águila o sol (1938, one of his earliest films), so I guess it's a fairly common expression.
  #26  
Old 12-03-2011, 04:03 AM
naita is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Jun 2002
Location: Norway
Posts: 6,237
Quote:
Originally Posted by willthekittensurvive? View Post
In dutch its "Kop of Munt" translate into heads or coin
In Norwegian it's kron eller mynt, i.e. crown or mint. The defining part being mint, the side the value is marked on. But some people don't know this and use the expression wrong when the coin has a crown or crowns on the same side as the value.
  #27  
Old 12-03-2011, 09:33 AM
TokyoBayer's Avatar
TokyoBayer is online now
Guest
 
Join Date: Oct 2003
Location: Taiwan
Posts: 10,203
In Japanese it's omete (front) or ura back.
  #28  
Old 12-05-2011, 12:17 AM
UDS is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Mar 2002
Location: Australia
Posts: 8,666
Quote:
Originally Posted by constanze View Post
But you don't know if the coins used at that time showed any tails?

I'm afraid I can't see the logic in calling a backside tails. Humans don't have tails, they have a butt, so it would either be "head or butt" or "Head or feet" if you want logically. Usually it seems to be what's on the other side of the coin, though - "Heads or number" or "Head or [whatever]".
People don't have heads at one end and tails at the other, but lots of common farmyard and domestic animals do. Coins don't represent people but they do represent property, and farm animals were an important form of property, so it makes more sense to personify a coin as an animal than as, well, a person.

The monarch's head on one side of a British coin is a pretty ancient and unvarying practice. The other side, however, could have a variety of designs and inscriptions; there was little or no commonality about what these might be. Hence it was easier to specify the obverse of a coin as "not the head" or "opposite the head" than by reference to what was on it, and "tails" worked for that purpose.
  #29  
Old 12-05-2011, 12:51 AM
Erdosain is offline
BANNED
 
Join Date: Oct 2008
Location: Stars Hollow
Posts: 3,358
There is a fair amount of variation in Latin American countries, besides the "aguila o sol," which is unique to Mexico. The generic one is "cara o cruz" (face or cross).

Heads is always face, but Wikipedia lists a bunch of variations for the tails:

escudo (coat of arms), corona (crown), sello (seal), numero, letra (words), ceca (mint).
  #30  
Old 12-05-2011, 02:48 AM
Mangetout's Avatar
Mangetout is offline
Member
 
Join Date: May 2001
Location: England
Posts: 57,859
Quote:
Originally Posted by UDS View Post
People don't have heads at one end and tails at the other, but lots of common farmyard and domestic animals do. Coins don't represent people but they do represent property, and farm animals were an important form of property, so it makes more sense to personify a coin as an animal than as, well, a person.
Tail, as a general antonym for 'head' is faily general though - 'top to tail' is a less common variant of "top to toe", likewise "head over tail" and "head over heels" - 'tail', as well as meaing tail, also just means the trailing end of something, or the opposite end from the head.

In a modern context, there is a pair of *nix commands called head and tail, which return the first or last few lines respectively, of a file.

In the context of coinage, some British coins do/did have tails on the reverse side, for example:
The modern decimal 10p piece has lions on it (each coin in the set has a segment of the Royal Shield - the 10p has the top left part, and shows a pair of lions passant). Previous versions all the way back to decimal day had a single lion.

Sovreigns and Silver Crowns had a horse and rider (the horse with conspicuous tail)

Half Crowns had a depiction of the Royal Shield, with a total of 7 lions on it.

Shillings had a lion, Some Farthings (albeit later ones) had a wren Guineas had several different shields or crests, all with lions, and so on.
  #31  
Old 12-05-2011, 07:02 AM
CalMeacham's Avatar
CalMeacham is offline
Member
 
Join Date: May 2000
Location: Massachusetts
Posts: 43,907
It's not a question of language -- as many of the above replies illustrate, it often depends upon what's on the coin, or local slang. So the reply in Mexico might be different from that in Spain, from that in some country in South America.


In one of C.S. Foresyer's Hornblower novels, set in the British navy in the Napoleonic era, one officer asks another to call "Ace or Spade" before flipping a coin.
  #32  
Old 12-05-2011, 12:52 PM
Nava is offline
Member
 
Join Date: Nov 2004
Location: Hey! I'm located! WOOOOW!
Posts: 41,153
Well, the answer for Spain is the same one Erdosain mentions as the generic one: cara o cruz.

While there are dialectal variations, I don't think it's any more wrong to say that "in English, it's 'head or tails'; in Spanish, it's 'cara o cruz'" than it is to say "in English it's 'thank you', in Spanish it's 'gracias'".

Last edited by Nava; 12-05-2011 at 12:56 PM.
  #33  
Old 12-05-2011, 01:35 PM
dracoi is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Dec 2008
Posts: 8,867
Quote:
Originally Posted by constanze View Post
But you don't know if the coins used at that time showed any tails?

I'm afraid I can't see the logic in calling a backside tails. Humans don't have tails, they have a butt, so it would either be "head or butt" or "Head or feet" if you want logically. Usually it seems to be what's on the other side of the coin, though - "Heads or number" or "Head or [whatever]".
If we insist that humans do not have tails and the rear end of a human can't be called a tail, then the expression "chasing tail" has frightening new meanings.
  #34  
Old 12-05-2011, 02:24 PM
Leo Bloom is offline
Member
 
Join Date: Jun 2009
Location: Here
Posts: 13,440
Quote:
Originally Posted by constanze View Post
It's "Kopf oder Zahl" (Head or Number) in German. The German word Schwanz means both tail of an animal or slang for penis, so you might want to avoid using wrong translations like Google
Schvantz I win Stucke you win.

Voof.
  #35  
Old 12-05-2011, 03:25 PM
naita is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Jun 2002
Location: Norway
Posts: 6,237
Quote:
Originally Posted by constanze View Post
The German word Schwanz means both tail of an animal or slang for penis, so you might want to avoid using wrong translations like Google.
Quote:
Originally Posted by constanze View Post
I'm afraid I can't see the logic in calling a backside tails. Humans don't have tails, they have a butt, so it would either be "head or butt" or "Head or feet" if you want logically. Usually it seems to be what's on the other side of the coin, though - "Heads or number" or "Head or [whatever]".
Yes, because language and expressions have to be logical, the way calling the part of the body where we have a tail bone the tail isn't, and calling the floppy part opposite the butt a Schwanz is.
  #36  
Old 12-05-2011, 03:34 PM
constanze is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Aug 2006
Location: Munich, Germany
Posts: 5,209
Quote:
Originally Posted by naita View Post
Yes, because language and expressions have to be logical, the way calling the part of the body where we have a tail bone the tail isn't, and calling the floppy part opposite the butt a Schwanz is.
I know that languages aren't logical. I just had a problem with it being presented as "Completly logical of course".

If tails as opposite to head even for humans has indeed a long history in the English language, but other examples have fallen out of use, that's an explanation that makes more sense to me.

And calling the penis a Schwanz= tail: well you can waggle it much better than the vestigial tailbone humans have.
  #37  
Old 12-05-2011, 03:54 PM
pulykamell is offline
Charter Member
 
Join Date: May 2000
Location: SW Side, Chicago
Posts: 46,912
Quote:
Originally Posted by constanze View Post
I know that languages aren't logical. I just had a problem with it being presented as "Completly logical of course".
"One logical opposite" is how I personally phrased it, and it is, indeed, a logical opposite of "head" in English, not just in literal usage, but in figurative usage.
Reply

Bookmarks

Thread Tools
Display Modes

Posting Rules
You may not post new threads
You may not post replies
You may not post attachments
You may not edit your posts

BB code is On
Smilies are On
[IMG] code is Off
HTML code is Off

Forum Jump


All times are GMT -5. The time now is 05:53 AM.

Powered by vBulletin® Version 3.8.7
Copyright ©2000 - 2019, vBulletin Solutions, Inc.

Send questions for Cecil Adams to: cecil@straightdope.com

Send comments about this website to: webmaster@straightdope.com

Terms of Use / Privacy Policy

Advertise on the Straight Dope!
(Your direct line to thousands of the smartest, hippest people on the planet, plus a few total dipsticks.)

Copyright © 2018 STM Reader, LLC.

 
Copyright © 2017