The Lion’s Share: Why do we say someone got the lion’s share?

When someone gets the lion’s share of something (be it a cake, profits from a company, or anything else), it means they are getting most, if not all of it. Why would a lion’s share mean this? Where does this idiom come from?

The lion’s share idiom can be traced back to Ancient Greece, and is often credited to Aesop and his fables which were written around 620-560 BC. One Aesop’s fable entitled “Lion and Wild Ass, Partners in the Hunt” (Perry 339) is thought to be behind this famous idiom.

Since Aesop, the story has been rehashed and rewritten with subtle differences in each re-telling, but the gist of the story remains the same:

A lion goes hunting with a few other animals. All the animals work together, pool their resources, and their efforts are rewarded with a delicious catch. After the hunt, the animals sit down together, ready to split the spoils, but then the lion suddenly loses his chummy demeanor and declares himself superior to the others. He roars that as the mightiest animal there, he deserves all of the spoils to himself and warns the others that if they dare interfere with his wishes, they won’t be around much longer to argue with him about it!

In some versions of the story, one of the creatures divides the portions equally and is rewarded by being eaten by the lion.

The moral of this unfortunate tale is said to be that you shouldn’t engage in business or expect fairness from someone who considers himself superior.

So often has this tale been retold, that eventually it gave birth to the lion’s share idiom. It is thought that the first use of this idiom was by Roman lawyer, C. Cassius Longinus, around 30AD, who appears to have coined the phrase: “societas leonina” when referring to a situation where the entire profits went to some people to the exclusion of the rest.

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