Q: I am writing about an 1850 visit of the Premier of Nepal to London. Contemporaneous news accounts referred to him as the “lion of the season.” Perhaps you can enlighten me on the source of the phrase, so I can explain the meaning to readers.
A: When “lion” first showed up in Old English in the early 800s (spelled léa after the Latin leo), it referred to the large carnivorous quadruped with a tufted tail. But by the early 1700s the word was also being used to mean a celebrity.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines this figurative sense as a “person of note or celebrity who is much sought after.”
The earliest Oxford citation, which we’ve expanded here, is from “St. James’s Coffee-House,” a 1715 poem by Lady Mary Wortley Montague. In the passage, she refers to celebrity-watchers at the opera:
“The opera queens had finished half their faces / And city dames already taken their places; / Fops of all kinds, to see the Lion, run; / The beauties stay till the first act’s begun / And beaux step home to put fresh linen on.”
The next OED example is from a 1774 entry in the journals of the novelist Fanny Burney: “The present Lyon of the Times, according to the Author of the Placid man’s term, is Omy, the Native of Otaheite.”
(The celebrity here is Mai, a Pacific Islander who visited Britain, where he was known as Omai; Otaheite is an obsolete spelling of Tahiti; The Placid Man, a 1770 novel by Charles Jenner, uses “lion” literally and figuratively.)
The third Oxford citation is from an Aug. 1, 1815, letter by Harriet, Countess Granville, about the celebrities she met at a ball in Paris: “The King of Prussia is the only Royal lion.”
The dictionary doesn’t have any examples for “lion of the season.” The earliest we’ve seen is from an article, headlined “The Chinese Ambassador,” that appeared in the Times, the Sun, and several other British newspapers in December 1842.
The article in the Dec. 10, 1842, issue of the Sun, which cites the Times, begins “His Celestial Majesty proposes, we are told, sending an Ambassador to London,” and includes this sentence: “That he will be the lion of the season, the known hospitality and curiosity of our countrymen forbid us to doubt.”
The figurative use of “lion” to mean a celebrity is apparently derived from an earlier figurative sense of the plural “lions” as celebrated sights, a usage that first appeared in the late 16th century.
Oxford defines the early sense of “lions” as “things of note, celebrity, or curiosity (in a town, etc.); sights worth seeing.”
The earliest OED example is from Neuer Too Late, a 1590 collection of poetry and prose by Robert Greene: “Francesco was no other but a meere nouice, & that so newly, that to vse the old prouerb, he had scarce seene the lions.”
Interestingly, the dictionary says the figurative sense of “lions” as must-see sights comes from the practice of taking tourists to see literal lions.
“This use of the word is derived from the practice of taking visitors to see the lions which used to be kept in the Tower of London,” the dictionary says. The Tower housed a menagerie of wild animals from the 1200s to the 1800s.
In support of a connection between these figurative and literal senses of “lions,” the OED cites three examples that bridge the two usages, including this citation from The Lottery, a 1732 play by Henry Fielding:
“I must see all the Curiosities; the Tower, and the Lions, and Bedlam, and the Court, and the Opera.”