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

George Thompson george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Mon Oct 17 22:46:20 UTC 2011

I thank Garson for doing this research.

The form that provoked me to ask him about the phrase was  "It's heads the
bankers win, tails the taxpayers lose."

No doubt there have been other such riffs on it in previous crises.

(I supposed I had seen this in the NYTimes, but it doesn't turn up in a
search of their website.)


On Mon, Oct 17, 2011 at 11:56 AM, Garson O'Toole
<adsgarsonotoole at gmail.com>wrote:

> 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)
> http://books.google.com/books?id=0mAAAAAAYAAJ&q=%22tails+you%22#v=snippet&
> <Begin excerpt>
> He must not think to put the old schoolboy's trick upon us, Heads I
> win, and tails you lose.
> <End excerpt>
> Garson
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of "The African Theatre", Northwestern Univ.
Pr., 1998, but nothing much since then.

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

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