Quip in the news: Heads I win, tails you lose (antedating 1739)

Garson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Mon Oct 17 15:56:33 UTC 2011

George Thompson noticed that the phrase "Heads I win, tails you lose"
is appearing regularly in news stories and commentary especially in
reference to the banking industry. Here are some sample matches:

POLL: New Canaan on Occupy Wall Street
Patch.com - David Moran - Jane Preziosi - 6 days ago
Bolton acknowledges that, fairly or not, some see business, the
financial sector in particular, as operating on a, "Heads I win, tails
you lose" basis. ...

Class warfare
Canada Free Press - Brad Lyles - 3 days ago
Heads I win, tails you lose. The problem, of course, is that these
verbal tricks actually WORK. These turns of phrase are like the pieces
of songs that get ...

Here is a variant:
Do you sleep well at night?
Fundweb (blog) - Nancy Curtin - Sep 29, 2011
For Germany, it is a 'heads you lose, tails you lose' situation.
Expanding the size of EFSF or making ECB the lender of last resort for
all eurozone ...

In the OED the entry for head (noun) discusses the phrase and gives a
citation in 1832.

head, n.1 3. b. The obverse side of a coin, when bearing the figure of
a head; the reverse being called the tail; in phr. head(s) or tail(s)
, used in tossing a coin to decide a chance. heads I win, (and) tails
you lose , I win whatever happens. colloq.

1684    T. Otway Atheist ii. 17   As the Boys do by their Farthings‥go
to Heads or Tails for 'em.

1801    J. Strutt Sports & Pastimes iv. ii. 251   One person tosses
the halfpenny up and the other calls at pleasure head or tail.

1832    A. W. Fonblanque Eng. under Seven Admin. (1837) II. 302   They
would play the toss up with the creditor on the terms ‘Heads I win,
tails you lose’.

The Oxford Dictionary of Idioms (2004, 2nd edition) also has a listing
for the phrase, but no dates or citations are given.

Here is a citation in 1739 that says the expression was old at that time.

Cite: 1739 November, The Scots Magazine, Weekly Essays: Craftsman, Nov
17, Page 577, Printed by W. Sands, A. Brymer, A. Murray and J.
Cochran, Edinburgh. (Google Books full view)
<Begin excerpt>
He must not think to put the old schoolboy's trick upon us, Heads I
win, and tails you lose.
<End excerpt>


The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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