Especially in the phrases to see the lions and to show the lions, lions denotes things of note, of celebrity, or of curiosity in a town, etc.
This use of lions is derived from the practice of taking visitors to see the lions which used to be kept in the Tower of London; John Smith (baptised 1580-died 1631), English soldier and colonial governor, evoked this practice in The true travels, adventures and observations of Captaine Iohn Smith, in Europe, Asia, Africke, and America: beginning about the yeere 1593, and continued to this present 1629 (London, 1629):
Not farre from Mount Atlas, a great Lionesse in the heat of the day, did use to bathe her selfe, and teach her young Puppies to swimme in the river Cauzeff, of a good bredth; yet she would carrie them one after another over the river; which some Moores perceiving watched their opportunitie, and when the river was betweene her and them, stole foure of her whelps, which she perceiving, with all the speed shee could passed the river, and comming neere them they let fall a whelpe (and fled with the rest) which she tooke in her mouth, and so returned to the rest: a Male and a Female of those they gave Mr. Archer, who kept them in the Kings Garden, till the Male killed the Female, then he brought it up as a Puppy-dog lying upon his bed, till it grew so great as a Mastiffe, and no dog more tame or gentle to them hee knew: but being to returne for England, at Saffee he gave him to a Merchant of Marsellis, that presented him to the French King, who sent him to King Iames, where it was kept in the Tower seven yeeres: After one Mr. Iohn Bull, then servant to Mr. Archer, with divers of his friends, went to see the Lyons, not knowing any thing at all of him; yet this rare beast smelled him before hee saw him, whining, groaning, and tumbling, with such an expression of acquaintance, that being informed by the Keepers how he came thither; Mr. Bull so prevailed, the Keeper opened the grate, and Bull went in: But no Dogge could fawne more on his Master, than the Lyon on him, licking his feet, hands, and face, skipping and tumbling to and fro, to the wonder of all the beholders; being satisfied with his acquaintance, he made shift to get out of the grate. But when the Lyon saw his friend gone, no beast by bellowing, roaring, scratching, and howling, could expresse more rage and sorrow, nor in foure dayes after would he either eat or drinke.
In early use, to have seen the lions often meant to have had experience of life; this phrase was already proverbial when the English author Robert Greene (baptised 1558-died 1592) wrote Greenes neuer too late. Or, A powder of experience (London, 1590):
Francesco was no other but a meere nouice, and that so newly, that to vse the old prouerb, he had scarce seene the lions.
In The Placid Man: Or, Memoirs of Sir Charles Beville (Dublin, 1770), the English author Charles Jenner (baptised 1736-died 1774) wrote A Dissertation on Lions after mentioning one of “the Lions of Bath”:
Mr. Beville was returning through the Grove to his lodgings, when he was hailed by the governor, who had been admiring a diamond windmill, which had been designed by some ingenious milliner, I hope with no satirical view, as an ornament for some lady’s head; and afforded, till it could be sold, a spectacle for idle people to go to admire; and on account of the richness of the diamonds, the mechanism of its rotation, and the novelty of the thought, it made no inconsiderable figure amongst the Lions of Bath.
Reader, if you do not understand the meaning of that word in this place, I will inform you, that not only the Tower of London, but also every town in England and Wales, as also the town of Berwick upon Tweed, for any thing I know to the contrary, is furnished with its lions; that is to say, something or other which the good-natured inhabitants esteem worthy the notice of strangers; and which accordingly every stranger is carried to see. Which lights have acquired the name of Lions from the constant custom of the cockneys, who never fail to carry their country cousins the morning after their arrival in town, to see the lions at the Tower, as the sight I suppose universally deemed the most worthy observation of any in the metropolis. In return for which acceptable compliment, for without doubt a lion is a noble beast, when it comes to the cousin’s turn to entertain his London friends at his house in some fair market-town in the country, it is hard but he will find some lion for his entertainment: as there is hardly a town in the kingdom so despicable, as not to afford one lion at least. Where a cathedral, a sea-port, a manufacture, or a nobleman’s seat is not to be had, we must be contented with a ring of bells, an assembly-room, a sessions-house, a narrow gravel-walk with two rows of blighted lime-trees, called, to be sure, the Mall, or a remnant of a Roman pavement: or, if the worst comes to the worst, we must mount, by worn-out steps loaded with jack-daws nests, to the top of the steeple, from whence with the help of an eight-penny spying-glass, we may trace the road we travelled the day before, and count twelve or fourteen church steeples. In short, whether it is this or that, there is still a Lion, to which every stranger, in spite of wind, rain, heat, cold, want of feet, breath or inclination, must be dragged, under pain of being thought a stupid fellow, without a grain of laudable curiosity in his composition; which cannot fail of giving the highest disgust to his friends, who would give him the best lion they have, with which he ought to be satisfied; if it happens to turn out not worthy his notice, then he may take care never to go to that town any more; as a town is certainly worth very little without a lion; and on the contrary, the more and better lions a town has, the more worthy it is of being visited, Lion-hunting in short being the whole end and design of travelling.
The word lion hence came to denote a person of note or celebrity who is much sought after; the following is from an undated entry of 1774, appearing between records of 22nd August and 1st September, in the diary of the English author Frances Burney (1752-1840), who referred to Charles Jenner’s book:
The present Lyon of the times, according to the author of “the Placid Man’s” term, is Omy¹, the native of Otaheite; and next to him, the present object is Mr. Bruce², a gentleman who has been abroad twelve years, and spent four of them in Abyssinia and other places in Africa, where no Englishman before has gained admission. His adventures are very marvellous.
¹ Mai (circa 1751-1780), mistakenly known as Omai, was from Ra’iātea in the Society Islands (South Pacific); he arrived in Britain in 1774 and was much admired within London high society.
² James Bruce (1730-1794) was a Scottish traveller and travel writer who spent a dozen years in North Africa and Ethiopia.
The French word lion is first recorded in this sense in Celle-ci et celle-là ou la Jeune-France passionnée (This one and that one or the passionate Jeune-France), from the collection of short stories Les Jeunes-France: romans goguenards (The Jeunes-France: mocking novels – Paris, 1833), by Théophile Gautier (1811-72), French poet, playwright, novelist, journalist, and art and literary critic—the term Jeunes-France designated the young, enthusiastic Romantics of that time:
Tout le monde, qui s’attendait à voir un original, un lion, comme disent les Anglais, était émerveillé de le voir s’acquitter des devoirs sociaux avec une aisance aussi parfaite.
Everyone, who was expecting to see an original, a lion, as the English say, was amazed at seeing him fulfil social duties with such perfect ease.
portrait of Omai (circa 1776)
by Joshua Reynolds (1723-92)