Slang dictionary

coin flip

[koin flip]

What does coin flip mean?

We call heads.

When people have to decide between two things, they might do a coin flip. This involves assigning options to the sides of a coin, flicking it into the air, and then going with the option that lands face up.

The practice has inspired the metaphorical coin flip, associated with outcomes based on chance.

Related words:

  • 50-50 chance
  • coin toss
  • heads or tails
  • random chance
  • jfafc

Where does coin flip come from?

coin flip

Though the practice of flipping a coin to decide a dispute or decide the winner of a game goes back as far as Roman times, the term coin flip belongs to 20th century, at least according to the written record at this point. 

The popularization of the phrase coin flip was probably due to American football’s use of the coin toss to decide the starting positions since 1892. Early usage is mostly centered around sports and politics.

The term really picked up in popularity in the 1970s. Of course, the sports connotations stuck around, since professional games still literally flip coins to determine the first possession or even the winner in extreme cases of ties. But, coin flip really started migrating to politics and general decision-making around this time, too.

Contemporary Google searches for coin flip show a feature at the top of the search results that “flips” an animated coin that lands on heads or tails. Apparently, enough people were searching coin flip to settle an argument that Google figured it would just flip it for them.

In November and December, 2017, Google lookups for coin flip hit an all-time high. First, in November, the Virginia House of Delegates was set to settle a tie in election votes by pulling names out of a jar. Many news articles related this arbitrary tie-breaker to a coin flip.

Then college football’s Cotton Bowl began with a hilarious anticlimactic coin flip—if we can even it call it that.

Examples of coin flip

I used to think studying night trade behavior would give me an edge the next day. Now I think if you wake up at 10:30am drop acid and determine buy or sell on a coin flip, the odds of success are better.
@JustinPenrod1, May, 2018
Both teams convinced each other that they had improved at least 100 per cent over their last year's showing. Captain Bashore guessed the coin flip and MacGregor kicked off to the Indians, who protected the north goal.
The Carlisle Arrow, 1910
Resolving a custody dispute my state-administered coin-flip would probably be viewed as unacceptable by most in our society. Perhaps this reaction reflects an abiding faith, despite the absence of an empirical basis for it, that letting a judge choose produces better results for the child.
U.S. Government Printing Office, Foster Care, Problems and Issues, 1976

Who uses coin flip?

Outside of sports, people actually settle matters with a coin flip, especially when there’s some undesirable task no one wants to do or when it’s a choice between two tough options.

Since the outcome of a coin flip is arbitrary, landing on heads 50% of the time and tails the other 50%, there is no way to predict what will happen.

That’s why coin flip is popularly associated with matters of chance—it’s a coin flip (i.e., it could go either way), and we say this about outcomes where we don’t actually flip a coin ….

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This is not meant to be a formal definition of coin flip like most terms we define on, but is rather an informal word summary that hopefully touches upon the key aspects of the meaning and usage of coin flip that will help our users expand their word mastery.