What Is a “Lion’s Share” Anyway?
I keep getting into this debate at work: what does it mean to say one took “the lion’s share” of something? In common usage, it seems to simply mean “most,” i.e., more than half. But the origin of the expression, Aesop’s fables, plainly indicates the “lion’s share” is the whole thing.
In arbiting such disputes, I like to refer to George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language (thanks, Mason). One ought not use imagery when one does not intend to evoke an image, or when one has not considered the image before evoking it:
Dying metaphors. A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically “dead” (e.g. iron resolution ) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves. Examples are: Ring the changes on, take up the cudgel for, toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, no axe to grind, grist to the mill, fishing in troubled waters, on the order of the day, Achilles’ heel, swan song, hotbed . Many of these are used without knowledge of their meaning (what is a “rift,” for instance?), and incompatible metaphors are frequently mixed, a sure sign that the writer is not interested in what he is saying. Some metaphors now current have been twisted out of their original meaning withouth those who use them even being aware of the fact. For example, toe the line is sometimes written as tow the line . Another example is the hammer and the anvil , now always used with the implication that the anvil gets the worst of it. In real life it is always the anvil that breaks the hammer, never the other way about: a writer who stopped to think what he was saying would avoid perverting the original phrase.
I wholeheartedly agree. So if we are to actually conjure the image of a lion contemplating the division of a thing into certain shares, what do you image that division might look like? Why, it would look like no division at all, of course, for lions are not in the business of sharing.
Now, one co-worker suggested a different image, which I found compelling. The lion makes the kill and eats the choice flesh. But when he’s had his fill, he will leave the carcass, and other lower mammals will come to eat the scraps, and then the vultures to peck the eyes, and so forth. So in this sense, the “lion’s share” might well mean something like “the choice bits”—i.e., it would be a qualitative rather than a quantitative measure.
Me, I’m an originalist, so I’ll defer to Aesop: The Lion’s Share is the Whole Thing.