17

I recently obtained a Silver Angel collectable coin, where the back side bears an image of an angel fighting a dragon: silver angel coin

I sort of realized, as I was looking at it, that for probably the first time in my life, I was holding a coin where the image on the back actually portrays a creature with a tail prominently displayed.

Everyone's heard of "heads or tails?", the traditional invocation for a coin toss. The head is obvious: most government-issued coins, from antiquity to modern times, have borne the bust of some famous ruler on one side. But most coins do not come with some tailed animal on the back, so where does the ubiquitous expression come from?

8
  • 4
    I think the head is obviously the frequently featured famous person's head. And, the tail is just the opposite of that.
    – David M
    Commented Feb 28, 2014 at 5:06
  • @DavidM I agree with you, but I'd also be interested to see if anyone can provide any evidence as to why it's "tails" over "heels", "feet", "back of head", etc. Commented Feb 28, 2014 at 9:30
  • 1
    Interestingly, the first English angel coin had the angel and dragon on one side (so, "tails") but a ship on the other (so, not "heads") en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angel_(coin). Among farthings, at least, there was no coin with both a headed and a tailed entity up to the time of the first recorded usage of "tails" as per Susan's answer en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Farthing_(English_coin). "tail" meaning "backside of a person, buttocks" is recorded from c.1300, which supports its use as opposite of "head" etymonline.com/index.php?term=tail&allowed_in_frame=0.
    – nxx
    Commented Feb 28, 2014 at 13:27
  • 2
    @nxx - but feet are often used as the opposite as well. We talk about someone going head over heels and the head and foot of the table. Commented Feb 28, 2014 at 16:48
  • 1
    Many British coins have had less obvious "tails" on the obverse for a long time: George and Dragon on sovereigns, and endless heraldic lions on most silver coins. Equally interesting is why it's plurals: Surely "head or tail" makes more sense, unless it came about during William and Mary's reign...?
    – Roddy
    Commented Feb 28, 2014 at 17:30

6 Answers 6

17

I don't think tails has anything directly to do with what is on the other side of the coin, but rather it is an expression of opposites: the head is at one end of spinal column, the tail at the other (think 'dog' nose to tail are opposites, rather than head and feet). The expression can't make head nor tail of it expresses this concept of opposites, and may be where heads or tails comes from.

The first recorded use of "tails" to mean the reverse side of a coin occurred in a 1684 comedy, "The Atheist," by playwright Thomas Otway. A character in the play advises someone, "As Boys do with their Farthings ... go to Heads or Tails for 'em."

As far as the coin toss goes, it is far from recent. Cross and pile was played in England for many centuries. The cross was the major design element on one side of many coins, and the pile was the bottom part of the die used to cast the 'cross' side of the coin. Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1898) Samuel Butler used the phrase in the 1600s: “Whacum had neither cross nor pile.” (Butler: Hudibras, part ii. 3.)

Before that, it was done by the Romans, and was called navia aut caput ("ship or head"), as some coins had a ship on one side and the head of the emperor on the other.

3
  • 1
    +1. More generally, tail as the opposite of head is found prior to that, in several pairings of the Latin caput and cauda, such as caput draconis and cauda draconis (literally "dragon's head" and "dragon's tail") for the lunar nodes. To find tail coming into use here is not a surprise.
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Feb 28, 2014 at 16:58
  • Interestingly, most Farthings from the 1600's that I've seen had neither a tail nor a head pictured on them. Mostly buildings and crests. Commented Feb 28, 2014 at 21:23
  • 1
    Interestingly, in Australia, kids learn the names because the $1 coin has Kangaroos (with their tails) on the Queenless side.
    – cortices
    Commented Apr 5, 2014 at 10:02
6

Some of the earliest known coins were found in the ruins of of Lydia in modern-day Turkey. These coins date back to 600 BC, and were engraved with the image of a symbolic animal.

The "obverse" of these coins was usually the head of the animal (or the full animal), such as the famous Lion-head coin. This could explain where the etymology of "heads" and "tails" (as the "back" of the coin could be considered the "tail" of the animal.)

The more obvious answer would be that the terminology started with the Romans and Greeks, since they used heads of states to adorn their coins with (as well as Gods, such as the head of Athena coin). But I wouldn't know where the "tail" terminology comes from in that case.

It's worth noting that our knowledge of the Lydians being among the first cultures to produce coins comes mainly from the Greek historian, Herodotus. So it's likely that the Greens and Romans were inspired by the designs of the Lydians.

More information on the terminology used in other languages for the obverse and reverse of a coin. And according to Merriam-Webster, the origin of the term "tails" for the reverse of a coin in English dates to 1680.

6
  • 4
    I believe tails is just the opposite of heads. But, the heads is exactly as you've described.
    – David M
    Commented Feb 28, 2014 at 5:06
  • @DavidM - if that is true why is there so much variation in the term when I travel? Commented Feb 28, 2014 at 20:54
  • @RyeBread Can you give an example? I would guess it depends upon what's on your coins . . . If there is always a frog on one side and monkey on the other, you'd probably say "frogs or monkeys."
    – David M
    Commented Feb 28, 2014 at 20:56
  • @DavidM - Look at Mason's comment under my answer. Also how about Roman example. And in Japan I think they say Head or Words. Commented Feb 28, 2014 at 20:58
  • @RyeBread Your answer doesn't obviate my comment. Rather, it shows that it in fact depends upon what was on the other side. In countries where the cross was commonly on the obverse, you would say crosses. As to Mason, well he's from Argentina. Argentina's Spanish is very heavily influenced by Italian. (In fact many other Spanish speakers swear their accents are Italian!)
    – David M
    Commented Feb 28, 2014 at 21:02
6

The term is heads or tails in America or Britain but it differs in other countries based on their monetary history. I know that Italy has Heads or Crosses and back in the Roman days there was Heads or Ships. Heads is a given. Most coins have a picture of a leader or powerful figure on one side and the opposite side whatever.

In the US we did have a Buffalo nickel that had a tail on the back but I am sure that the phrase was muttered before that nickel. It is just that tail is the opposite of head. The phrase "I can't make head nor tail of it" has nothing to do with coins (I think).

So the phrase is more about the actual money than just making up a phrase to play a game. And in your picture is a big dragon's tail.

6
  • 1
    What's at the caudal end of an eagle if not a tail? The eagle appears on the 1794 silver dollar. Commented Feb 28, 2014 at 8:06
  • 1
    What's at the caudal end of an eagle if not a tail? -- tail feathers.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Feb 28, 2014 at 19:01
  • Heads or crosses in Italy? Interesting. When I lived in Argentina for a while, the coin-toss phrase was cara o cruz? (Face or cross?) Argentine coins, despite the strong Catholic influence on their culture, do not feature crosses on the back. Commented Feb 28, 2014 at 19:39
  • @MasonWheeler Argentina, I think you'd agree, has a STRONG Italian influence on its language and culture. (Up to 60% of the population has Italian ancestry: Source Wikipedia
    – David M
    Commented Feb 28, 2014 at 21:04
  • @DavidM: Yeah, that was very noticeable. Commented Feb 28, 2014 at 21:50
1

Growing up in Canada, this seemed a very natural expression, as most of our coins have animals on them. A beaver, caribou, loon, and polar bear adorn our five cent, twenty-five cent, one dollar, and two dollar coins, respectively. Canadian Coins

Many other countrys, such as Madagascar and Australia also have animals on the back of their coins.

2
  • 5
    The two dollar coin is of course the rudest Canadian coin, as it shows the Queen with a bear behind. Commented Feb 28, 2014 at 18:27
  • However, to numisma...., er, coin people the "head" (obverse) is the side with the year stamped on it.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented May 26, 2015 at 16:36
0

Wikipedia says that "head and tail" might be connected with German Kopf und Zahl (Head and number). In English the word family connected with German Zahl and zählen is to tell, tale, teller (in a bank). But there was a semantic shift in the meaning from to count to narrate.

If Wikipedia's view is right then we have a typical case of transformation. An old word (Old English talu) that came out of use was changed to another, well-known word: tail. So the coin got a tail, though coins have no tail as everybody knows and you have to search a long time till you find an animal with a tail on the backside. But almost all coins have the value on the back in large digits (the number or German die Zahl; Modern High German z /ts/ comes from t; in Low German it is still t).

http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coin_flipping#History

1
  • That theory was removed from Wikipedia in 2015 due to missing citations. However the new theory »heads and tails being considered opposite« is also a missing a citation.
    – Socowi
    Commented Sep 5, 2018 at 20:01
-1

Two persons decided to go for a horse ride. But who will ride first? The horse was in stable. They decided to work out the solution with a chance. As they enter the stable, is the "head" of the horse facing us or is the "tail" of the horse facing us?. So, one called "Heads" and the other automatically settled for "Tails". This is how they decided who will ride the horse first - a chance with two equally likely probabilities. Does this initiate the history of the terms "heads or tails"?

1
  • 2
    Interesting. Do you have any references for this story?
    – Chenmunka
    Commented May 26, 2015 at 9:19

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.