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In English, when the two sides of a coin are described it is conventional to speak about heads before tails. For instance, we'd ask "heads or tails?" when flipping a coin and someone has to choose a side, and if just one side of a coin is in the background to a probability problem then it is usually heads (e.g., "a biased coin has the probability of heads as 1/3").

In Russian, heads = орёл and tails = решка. Is it conventional in Russian to give preference to орёл before решка in such situations, presumably for alphabetical reasons?

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  • Are you sure this question is about the Russian language?
    – Yellow Sky
    Jan 5 '15 at 23:51
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    And by the way, it's vice versa, actually heads = орёл and tails = решка, so 'heads or tails' and 'орёл или решка' have the same sequence of words.
    – Yellow Sky
    Jan 6 '15 at 0:07
  • @YellowSky Wow... I've had it wrong all my life. EDIT: Or have I? Jan 6 '15 at 0:39
  • Did you try to use a dictionary to translate 'heads' and 'tails' into Russian? Those Russian coins with profiles had an eagle ('орёл') on the other side, the eagle was on every Russian coin just like a profile ('heads') was on every British one, but not every Russian coin had a profile, usually text was there ('решка'). That's why the main side of the coin is 'орёл' in Russian and 'heads' in Britain.
    – Yellow Sky
    Jan 6 '15 at 1:01
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    The flipping coin game exists for centuries in Russia, before 1700, the word реверс didn't exist in Russian then. Instead of the eagle the first Russian coins had St. George on horseback killing a dragon with a spear (копьё), so first the game was called копьё и решка (the word копейка comes also from that spear), the eagle appeared in Peter I times. The game was played by poor illiterate people for whom the letters on the other side looked like a grate, a sieve (решето), hence the name. Another theory has it that решка < ряшка, diminutive form of ряха 'muzzle' meaning 'profile'.
    – Yellow Sky
    Jan 6 '15 at 1:28
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Intuitively, I do feel that there's a preference for putting орёл first, and a quick exact phrase search on Google confirms it: орёл или решка is about three times more frequent than решка или орёл, and the prevalence of орёл и решка over решка и орёл is astronomical.

However, I don't think this has to do with the alphabet. It might be the same case of a culturally "preferred" side of a nominally equal relationship (much like with the preference for right over left in many languages); in Russian, орёл would predictably be considered the more "dignified" side, not just because of the imagery invoked but also for euphonic reasons; решка, while having no meaning outside of "heads on a coin", sounds harsh and almost pejorative. English possibly mirrors this situation because a head is intuitively more "dignified" than a tail.

Prosody may also be involved: the naturally rhythmic орёл и[ли] решка flows much better than решка и[ли] орёл, with its three or four consecutive unstressed syllables.

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    and also a phrase starting with р- is usually more difficult to pronounce (that's why in many languages prothetic vowels are inserted in such circumstances).
    – Anixx
    Jan 6 '15 at 22:29

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