‘Flip a Coin’: Definition, Meaning, and Examples

By Sophia Merton, updated on December 16, 2022

If you’re trying to make a decision and someone tells you to ‘flip a coin,’ what does it mean? In this article, we’ll look at the meaning, origin, examples, and synonyms of this phrase.

In short, ‘flip a coin’ means to make a choice between two options by assigning one option to each side of a coin. You then throw the coin in the air and see which side it lands on– whichever option was assigned to that side wins!

What Does ‘Flip a Coin’ Mean?

‘Flip a coin’ means to decide something by tossing a coin into the air and selecting between two choices depending on which side it lands on. It can also be used figuratively to refer to giving something over to chance, particularly when there are two equally likely outcomes.

Understanding the Literal Meaning of ‘Flip a Coin’

For a literal example of when you might choose to ‘flip a coin,’ let’s say that you and your spouse can’t decide what to eat for dinner tonight. You’ve decided that you want to order takeout from a restaurant, but your spouse wants Mexican food while you want to get sandwiches.

Faced with this impasse, you might decide to ‘flip a coin.’ You each pick a side of the coin (heads or tails) and then throw the coin into the air to see which side it lands on. If you choose heads and it lands on heads, you’ll order sandwiches. If it lands on tails, though, you’re having Mexican food for dinner.

You can also ‘flip a coin’ when you’re making a decision on your own, but you feel completely stumped. Let’s say that you can’t decide whether to wear a blue shirt or a red shirt to the party you’re going to. In this case, you can assign each color of the shirt to a side of the coin, flip the coin, and let the coin decide for you.

According to a fascinating study, flipping a coin when making major life decisions actually coincides with higher overall happiness after a six-month period. The same study also found that people who flip coins to make decisions are more likely to actually follow through with the choice they made and end up more satisfied.

In general, though, it’s a good idea to make sure that the two options you are pitting against each other are of equal merit. Beyond that, some experts argue that flipping a coin is an excellent way to make decisions.

This is because it can help you recognize what your gut feeling is on the topic. If the decision made by the coin leaves you feeling relieved or satisfied, then going with the decision is a good call. If you’re left feeling uneasy or questioning your coin toss methods by the results, though, your gut is telling you that the other choice is the right decision.

Understanding the Figurative Meaning of ‘Flip a Coin’

The figurative meaning of ‘flip a coin’ is simply an extension of the literal meaning.

For instance, let’s say that you’re on a road trip with your friend, and their car has been having major problems the entire drive. You might say something along the lines of, “Honestly, we’re just flipping a coin at this point whether this vehicle will get us all the way to California or not.”

Where Does ‘Flip a Coin’ Come From?

Metal coins have been around since at least the 7th century BC, but one of the earliest accounts of people flipping coins comes from ancient Rome. To the Romans, coin flipping was known as navia aut caput (“ship or head”), as some of the coins at the time had the head of the emperor on one side and a ship on the other.

In Medieval England, they played a similar game known as Cross and PIle. On many coins, one side had a cross, while “pile” is the word they used to describe the hammer-created mark from striking the metal on the coin’s other side.

Coin tosses have been used for millennia to make benign and major decisions. In professional American football, a coin toss has been used since 1892 to decide which team will get possession of the ball at the start of the game.

Flipping a coin has also been the way decisions have been made in politics in the UK and in the US. For example, a coin toss determines the election cycle for senators when a new state is added to the Union. There was even a 2017 election to the 94th District of the Virginia House of Delegates that could have been decided by a coin toss, but they went with the other option: drawing a name out of a hat.

In the UK, a coin flip can be used to decide a winner in a local or national election where candidates receive the exact same number of votes. Other acceptable methods include drawing straws or drawing a high card in a pack of cards.

Two of the most famous coin flips in American history involve the city of Portland, Oregon, and the first example of powered flight.

In 1845, Francis Pettygrove and Asa Lovejoy owned the claim to the land that would eventually become the city of Portland, Oregon. Both of these men wanted to pay homage to their own hometowns in the naming of the new town. Pettygrove was from Portland, Maine, while Lovejoy was from Boston, Massachusetts. As you might imagine, Pettygrove won the coin toss!

A little more than half a century later, the Wright brothers also used a coin toss to decide who would fly the craft they invented. Wilbur Wright won the coin toss but was not entirely successful in his flight. The later flight taken by Orville is considered to be the first example in all of human history of powered flight.

Examples of ‘Flip a Coin’ In Sentences

Now that we understand the meaning and origin of ‘flip a coin,’ let’s look at some sentence examples:

  • “My sister and I used to fight about everything when we were kids, so our mom would make us flip a coin to make decisions.”
  • Sorry for bothering you, but do you have a quarter we can borrow? We’ve been bickering about who should drive the rest of the way, and we’ve settled on flipping a coin.
  • “I’m pretty sure I’ve already made my decision, but I want to flip a coin to double-check that I’m happy with my choice.”
  • “At this point, we just need to hire another employee. Both of those candidates seem fine. If you can’t decide, just flip a coin so we can move forward.”
  • “Don’t worry about him; he’s fine. He’s just still sore that he lost even though it was his idea to flip a coin in the first place.”

Other Ways to Say ‘Flip a Coin’

Are you curious to know other ways that you can convey the same meaning as ‘flip a coin’? Here are some other phrases and words that are similar:

  • Toss a coin
  • Heads or tails?
  • Flip for it

Are you wondering what idiom you should learn about next? Maybe you should read about the phrase ‘dodge a bullet’ or perhaps ‘bearer of bad news.’ If you can’t decide, I guess you’ll have to ‘flip a coin’!

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Written By:
Sophia Merton
Sophia Merton is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Sophia received her BA from Vassar College. She is passionate about reading, writing, and the written word. Her goal is to help everyone, whether native English speaker or not, learn how to write and speak with perfect English.

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