Head or tail sound fine to my ESL ears. What's the reasoning behind the plural usage? I looked it up on etymonline but didn't find anything interesting.

  • I have no proof of this, but I'm wondering if this originated as a possessive "head's side". (I'm pretty sure tail has always been used simply because it's the most obvious antonym for head.) – Marthaª Jan 11 '12 at 1:13

The Oxford English Dictionary has one citation from 1801 which puts it in the singular, but the earliest citation, from 1684, has ‘heads or tails’. I think we must regard heads and tails,when found in this context, as examples of ‘pluralia tantum’, the term used to describe nouns that end in -s, but whose meaning is ‘collective or composite’. Other examples are dregs, thanks and remains.

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Surprisingly, no one has mentioned about the metaphor here. (cf.Wikipedia, I suspect that it is properly called a metonymy.)

In expressions like heads and tails, we really are not referring to the literal head or tail on a coin. The symbolism is merely a convenient way of referring to the obverse and reverse sides of the coin.

We generally use the plural when a metaphor or a symbolism is used this way to refer to a certain class of associated things . So, this is not unique to heads and tails alone.

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    I'd be interested in other examples of plurals used for metonymy (where the plural is otherwise nonsensical). – Marthaª Jan 11 '12 at 1:09
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    @Marthaª: Faerd mentioned one recently in chat: "thumbs up" is always plural, even when referring to a gesture made with one hand. – herisson Jan 19 '17 at 7:28

Moby Dick (1851) devotes a chapter "Heads or Tails" to division of Royal Fish, whereby it is explained that under UK law the King is entitled the Heads or Whales and Queen the Tails as detailed in Backstones commentaries on Laws of England (1765)

The chapter in Melville's book goes on to discuss the arbitrary and binary nature of this arrangement.

The Kings portrait is similarly on obverse of coins in times that we have both a king and a queen.

On this basis it makes perfect logical sense that the terms used are future plural tense and that, in the process of a coin toss the coin is both "Heads and Tails" and the "caller" can only be deemed to be correct when the coin has settled.

In short the plural term refers to the status of the coin rather than singular motif on the obverse a coin.

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Heads (plural) seems to come from the variety of kings and queens heads on coins.

Pluralising tails seems to purely be for consistency.

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    Since the introduction of the pound coin in the UK, I think we've only had two "heads" (both QE2, obviously), but at least a dozen "tails". I don't know if that was the general pattern way back when the expression started. – FumbleFingers Jan 2 '12 at 17:45
  • @Fumble: The current UK standard pound coin has one head on the obverse, but seven heads and seven tails on the reverse – Henry Jan 2 '12 at 19:25

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