Navia Aut Caput: The Tradition of Heads or Tails

We’ve all done it at one point or another, flipped a coin. Whether its to see who gets the last slice of  pizza or decide what you’re going to do on a Friday night. During a coin toss, the coin is thrown into the air and it rotates edge-over-edge several times. Either beforehand or when the coin is in the air, one of the people involved calls “heads” or “tails”, claiming a side of the coin. Depending on custom, the coin may be caught; caught and inverted; or allowed to land on the ground. When the coin comes to rest, the flip is complete and the person whose side is upright is declared the winner.

It is possible for a coin to land on its edge, sometimes by landing up against an object or by getting stuck in the ground. Sometimes, even on a flat surface it is possible for a coin to land on its edge, with a chance of about 1 in 6000 for an American nickel. Angular momentum typically prevents most coins from landing on their edges unsupported if flipped. Such cases in which a coin does land on its edge are rare and in most cases the coin is simply re-flipped.

The coin used for a toss may be any type as long as it has two distinct sides. Larger coins tend to be more popular than smaller ones because they’re easier to see and toss.


Roman Coin

Coin flipping as been used to resolve issues from as early as 7th century BC Rome. The Romans called the activity “navia aut caput”, translating as “ship or head”. Although some historians argue it goes back even further to Ancient Greece before metal coin mintage began, where more often than not, children would cover one side of a shell with black pitch. With the distinct shell side and black pitch side, the shell would be tossed to make the decision.

No matter when the coin toss truly began, people around the globe have been partaking in the games for centuries. Britain’s called it “cross and pile”. The cross was the major design on one side of many coins, and the Pile was the mark created by the hammer used to strike the metal on the other side. In Peru the game was called “cara o sello” or “face or seal”.


Francis Pettygrove

Some big decisions have been made over the years with a coin flip from politics to sports. The name of Portland, OR was decided with a coin flip. Two New England natives wanted to name the city after their hometowns. Asa Lovejoy was from Boston and Francis Pettygrove was from Portland, Maine. The coin tossed in Pettygrove’s favor and the official name became known as Portland. Brothers Wilbur and Orville decided who would be the first to fly their airplane with a flip of a coin. Brother Wilbur won the toss but stalled the plane and it dove into the sand. After a couple days of repairs Orville flew for the first time in history.

Many sports games begin with a coin toss to decide which team goes first. Including American and Australian football. Another popular games that utilize a coin toss to decide the first play is cricket. Major League Baseball once conducted a series of coin flips as a contingency on the last month of its regular season to determine home teams for any potential one-game playoff games that might need to be added to the regular season. Fédération Internationale d’Escrime rules use a coin toss to determine the winner of a fencing match that remains tied at the end of a “sudden death” extra minute of competition. Although in most international matches this is now done electronically by the scoring apparatus

Another common practice for tossing a coin is to use it as an exercise to help yourself make a decision. A technique attributed to Sigmund Freud explained as: “I did not say you should follow blindly what the coin tells you. What I want you to do is to note what the coin indicates. Then look into your own reactions. Ask yourself: Am I pleased? Am I disappointed? That will help you to recognize how you really feel about the matter, deep down inside. With that as a basis, you’ll then be ready to make up your mind and come to the right decision.” The theory behind this is that in the quick second that the coin is in the air it will became apparent what you truly want because you will be wishing for one side of the coin to be revealed as the result. Another supporter of this theory is Danish poet Piet Hein’s who wrote:

A Psychological Tip

Whenever you’re called on to make up your mind,
And you’re hampered by not having any,
The best way to solve the dilemma, you’ll find,
Is simply by spinning a penny.
No—not so that chance shall decide the affair
While you’re passively standing there moping;
But the moment the penny is up in the air,
You suddenly know what you’re hoping.

Whether to decide the fate of a cities name, to realize your true feelings, or to help you and your friends settle a debate on if you’re going bowling or to the movies; flipping a coin is a historical tradition that has helped people make tough decisions for centuries.

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