origin of ‘the lion’s share’: ‘le partage du lion’

The phrase the lion’s share means the biggest or greatest part—cf. meaning and origin of the phrase ‘Benjamin’s portion’.

It is first recorded in Reflections on the Revolution in France, and on the Proceedings in certain Societies in London relative to that Event. In a Letter intended to have been sent to a Gentleman in Paris (London, 1790), by Edmund Burke (1729-97), Anglo-Irish politician and author; about the French nobility’s behaviour towards the inferior classes, Burke remarked:

As men of landed estates, I had no fault to find with their conduct, though much to reprehend, and much to wish changed, in many of the old tenures. Where the letting of their land was by rent, I could not discover that their agreements with their farmers were oppressive; nor when they were in partnership with the farmer, as often was the case, have I heard that they had taken the lion’s share.

This phrase is a calque of French le partage du lion, defined as follows in the Dictionnaire universel, contenant generalement tous les mots françois tant vieux que modernes, & les termes de toutes les sciences et des arts (second edition – The Hague & Rotterdam, 1701), by the French lexicographers Antoine Furetière (1619-88) and Henri Basnage de Beauval (1657-1710):

Tout d’un côté & rien de l’autre.
     literal translation:
Everything on one side and nothing on the other.

This French phrase, which is now more commonly la part du lion, refers to La Génisse, la Chèvre, et la Brebis, en société avec le Lion (The Heifer, the She-Goat, and the Ewe, in partnership with the Lion), a fable by the French poet Jean de La Fontaine (1621-95):

La Genisse, la Chevre, & la Brebis, en societé avec le Lion
from Fables choisies, mises en vers par M. de La Fontaine (Paris, 1668)

La Genisse, la Chevre, & leur sœur la Brebis,
Avec un fier Lion, Seigneur du voisinage,
Firent societé, dit-on, au temps jadis,
Et mirent en commun le gain & le dommage.
Dans les laqs de la Chevre un Cerf se trouva pris ;
Vers ses associez aussi-tost elle envoye :
Eux venus, le Lion par ses ongles conta,
Et dit ; Nous sommes quatre à partager la proye ;
Puis en autant de parts le Cerf il dépeça :
Prit pour luy la premiere en qualité de Sire ;
Elle doit estre à moy, dit-il, & la raison,
C’est que je m’appelle Lion :
A cela l’on n’a rien à dire.
La seconde par droit me doit échoir encor :
Ce droit, vous le sçavez, c’est le droit du plus fort.
Comme le plus vaillant je pretens la troisiéme,
Si quelqu’une de vous touche à la quatriéme,
Je l’étrangleray tout d’abord.

translation:

The Heifer, the Goat, and the Sheep, in company with the Lion
from The Fables of La Fontaine (London, 1882)
translated by Elizur Wright, edited by J. W. M. Gibbs

The heifer, the goat, and their sister the sheep,
Compacted their earnings in common to keep,
’Tis said, in time past, with a lion, who sway’d
Full lordship o’er neighbours, of whatever grade.
The goat, as it happen’d, a stag having snared,
Sent off to the rest, that the beast might be shared.
All gather’d; the lion first counts on his claws,
And says, ‘We’ll proceed to divide with our paws
The stag into pieces, as fix’d by our laws.’
This done, he announces part first as his own;
‘’Tis mine,’ he says, ‘truly, as lion alone.’
To such a decision there’s nought to be said,
As he who has made it is doubtless the head.
‘Well, also, the second to me should belong;
’Tis mine, be it known, by the right of the strong.
Again, as the bravest, the third must be mine.
To touch but the fourth whoso maketh a sign,
I’ll choke him to death
In the space of a breath!’

illustration for La Genisse, la Chevre, & la Brebis, en societé avec le Lion
from Fables choisies, mises en vers par M. de La Fontaine (Paris, 1668)

La Genisse, la Chevre, et la Brebis, en societé avec le Lion - Fables choisies, mises en vers par M. de La Fontaine (Paris, 1668)

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