Heads or Tails? Is the Order of Word Pairs the Same Across Languages?

"Pepper and salt." "Groom and bride." "White and black." Is the order of word pairs the same across languages?

Mignon Fogarty
5-minute read

This listener had a great question about last week’s segment on binomials:

"Hi, Grammar Girl. I have a question about binomials. I was just wondering if the common ‘salt and pepper,’ ‘ham and eggs,’ etc. are the same in other languages. Do they also put ‘salt’ before ‘pepper,’ and ‘ham’ before ‘eggs,’ and so on and so forth? Or are binomials unique in different languages? Thank you."

This was a brilliant question! And I knew from my reading last week that linguists who speak other languages have studied binomials, but I didn’t know the answer to this question, so I asked my Twitter followers, who gave me a bunch of interesting answers

I threw out four examples, and this is what I got:

Salt and pepper 

These appear in the same order in Arabic, Finnish ("suola ja pippuri"), German, Hindi, Japanese, Russian, Spanish ("sal y pimienta"), Swedish, and Vietnamese.

But they’re reversed in Dutch ("peper en zout"), and French is really interesting because apparently it goes different ways for different things. Someone told me it’s "salt and pepper" when talking about food ("du sel et du poivre"), but "pepper and salt" ("poivre et sel") when talking about the color of someone’s hair.

As you would expect, culture plays a role in this too because not everyone uses salt and pepper in lots of dishes. A follower from southern India says they don’t use a lot of pepper and instead talk about "salt and red chili powder." A Chinese follower said you don’t typically find salt and pepper on kitchen tables in China, but they do have a condiment called "pepper salt" ("椒盐") that is a mixture of pepper and salt. 

Ham and cheese

I also asked about “ham and cheese” and in retrospect, of course this is heavily influenced by culture because it’s not a meal that’s eaten everywhere, and sometimes it just has the English name because it’s an import. For example, it’s called “ham and cheese” in Japanese, but only because that’s what it’s called in English.

People told me it’s called "ham and cheese" in Arabic, French, German ("Schinkenbrot mit Käse"), and Spanish ("jamón y queso,"), but it’s reversed to "cheese and ham" in Swedish ("ost och skinka"), and Dutch ("kaas en hesp"), and it appears it can go either way in Portuguese ("queijo e presunto" or "presunto e queijo"). And I was very surprised to hear that it’s often called "cheese and ham" in British English too.

Bride and groom

"Bride and groom" was all over the place. It’s the same in German ("Braut and Bräutigam"), Swedish, Telugu (a language from southern India), and Vietnamese, but reversed in Chinese ("公 字"), Hindi, Japanese ("shinro shinpu"), Korean, Spanish ("el novio y la novia"), and Russian.

A Finnish follower says they don’t have a consistent way of saying it, and a French follower says they don’t say it as a binomial because the words for "bride" and "groom" are spelled differently but pronounced the same, so it wouldn’t make sense. 

Heads and tails

"Heads and tails" was the last binomial I asked about, and again, quickly realized culture plays a role because everyone’s coins don’t have heads and tails, and in fact, I realized American coins don’t have images of anything resembling a tail. 

Tossing a coin goes way back. In Roman times, they’d call "heads and ship" or "Caesar or ship" because the coins had an image of Caesar’s head on one side and a ship on the other. In the Middle Ages, it was sometimes "cross or pile" because the coins had a cross on one side, and then the reverse side was called the "pile" from the French word for the reverse of a coin, according to the Oxford English Dictionary

Many countries’ coins today do have someone’s head on one side, and then it seems we call the other side "tails" because it’s something of an anatomical opposite of the head. People use the "heads and tails" order in Arabic, Finnish ("kruuna ja klaava"), German ("Kopf oder Zahl"), Hindi, Swedish, Telugu, and Vietnamese.

In some forms of Spanish, they say "face and crown." Both Mexico and Russia have coins with an eagle on one side, and they call "eagle or sun" ("águila o sol") and "eagle or tails" respectively.

In French, they have an expression like "can’t make heads or tails of it," but the order is reversed to "tails or heads of it" ("sans queue ni tête").

In Japan, they don’t usually flip coins to decide things. My Japanese follower says, "rock, paper, scissors is king" but if they were to flip a coin, they’d refer to the underside and the top side, in that order ("ura omote"). 

Black and white

Besides the binomials I asked about, people offered up other interesting examples. People say the equivalent of "white and black" instead of "black and white" in Arabic, Italian ("bianco e nero"), Spanish ("blanco y negro"), and Vietnamese ("trắng đen").

In Spanish, "sooner or later" is "later or sooner" ("tarde o temprano").

In French, "safe and sound" is "sound and safe" (“saine et sauve”).

"Back and forth" is reversed in both French ("va-et-vient" or "aller-retour") and Finnish (“edestakaisin”).

A follower who used to teach ESL to Portuguese students remembers that they struggled with "fork and knife" and "thunder and lightning" because those orders are reversed in Portuguese.

Charmingly, what we call a walkie-talkie is a "talkie-walkie" in both French and Croatian.

What binomial rules?

So, where does all this leave us with the rules I told you about last week where things like how often we use a word determines which one comes first, or how important we perceive one element of the pair to be?

You’ll remember I told you they were more like tendencies than rules, and this really drove that home for me. 

Also, cultural factors can play a role. For example, in my culture, the bride is the most important person at a wedding, but maybe the bride isn’t the most important person in other cultures. 

All these differences also make me suspect that other things I mentioned like how short a word is and what kind of vowels a word has might play a bigger role than I originally gleaned, at least in some cases, and I think all these differences reinforce the idea that as much as we crave hard-and-fast rules for how things work or are ordered, sometimes the best we can get is hints or weak patterns.

Finally, because I know everyone likes songs, I’ll also pass along something a listener named Doug mentioned. He pointed out that last week I said it might sound weird if I said I had jam and bread for breakfast, but that is a line Julie Andrews sings in the popular song "Do Re Mi" from "The Sounds of Music": "tea, a drink with jam and bread" to rhyme with "sew, a needle pulling thread," so "jam and bread" might actually not sound so odd to people after all.

Anyway, thanks for the question and thanks to all the people on Twitter who answered my call for help. It turned out to be fascinating!

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.