Notes From Babel

What Is a “Lion’s Share” Anyway?

with 5 comments

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.

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Written by Tim Kowal

February 13, 2010 at 10:15 am

5 Responses

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  1. thanks for the shout out! although I don’t remember recommending that essay to you… however, it is one of my all-time favorites, not to mention indispensable reading for anyone who cherishes clear thinking, so I do have a habit of recommending it endlessly to everyone I talk to…

    as for the question at hand, being an originalist myself, I am inclined to your view, but your friend’s formulation is compelling in that it is demonstrably true. the lion indeed gets the whole thing in the sense that his initial possession and control is total, but he literally never eats the whole thing. therefore, something always does trickle down to the scavengers…

    the problem this formulation is that it implies that the scavengers will inevitably get their portion. generally speaking, they do– such is the balance of nature. however, the scavenger’s share is fundamentally indefinable, for what the lion leaves behind is subject to whimsy. perhaps the lion is particularly hungry on this day and consumes parts of his share he would normally leave behind. or, perhaps the lion has been eating well lately and consumes a substantially smaller portion of his share than normal.

    therefore, it is wise to assume that the entire share is the lion’s and to not make calculations that depend on what he may or may not leave behind.

    moreover, keeping in mind that the purpose of such analogies is illumination of human behavior, we must also add the human element to our analysis. to wit, after a human-lion consumes the part of his share that he needs, he may very well decide to consume or destroy the remaining scraps out of mere spite!

    as such, in human affairs, Aesop’s original construction — though not always true in practice — is indeed the more wise and useful way to make decisions when dealing with lions.

    Mason Boyer

    February 14, 2010 at 2:42 pm

  2. Good point. That construction would subject the expression to such uncertainty as to take all the profit out of using it. Always happy to have assistance in affirming the rightness of my position!

    And by the way, it was Josh who relayed your commendation of Orwell’s essay to me.

    Tim Kowal

    February 14, 2010 at 6:49 pm

  3. Speaking of “order of the day”: Is it correct to say “were the order of the day” or “were on the order of the day”? I opt for the latter, but I’d like to hear comments.


    November 25, 2010 at 2:19 am

  4. I think “on the order of the day” comes from smashing together “on the order of” (meaning something like “along the lines of”) and “order of the day” (meaning agenda or directive for a given day). To say “on the order of the day” suggests, probably incorrectly, that one is referring to some discrete, particular “order” or list of directives, rather than the more abstract “order” that is probably intended.

    Tim Kowal

    November 26, 2010 at 4:33 am

  5. thanks for the clarification, as wikipedia wasn’t very helpful with the answer to this one.


    May 24, 2012 at 7:39 am

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