Lions, chameleons, and shih-tzus, oh my!: 12 “lion” etymologies

Liger is much older than you think. Tigon is even older.

Earlier this week, I let the etymological cat out of the bag for International Cat Day. Today, I keep with the feline theme for World Lion Day. Yes, these national/international days can get gimmicky—except where they raise money for wildlife conservation. But I really can’t resist a reason to explore words that come from the lion’s den, so to speak. Here are the origins of 12 lion-related words, with a few bits of other beastly lexical trivia scattered throughout:

1. Lion

English adopted the word lion from Latin’s leo twice. The first, attested in the 800s, took the form of lea or leo in Old English. The second, and source of the modern form, came from the French lion. We know Latin’s leo goes back to the Greek leon, but from there, the word’s deeper roots are unknown. Etymologists point to Hebrew (labi) and Egyptian (labai), but their relationship to leon is unclear.

As for a pride of lions, the collective term for a group of this big cat? The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) suggests this term “may arise from the use of this animal as a symbol for the sin of pride, attested in art from the Middle Ages.” 

2. Leopard

The “lion-pard” (Pixabay)

The Greek leon also shows up in leopard, literally a “lion-pard.” And what’s a pard? Essentially a panther. It comes from the Greek pardos, in turn probably related to Eastern words for the beast like the Persian palang. Before we called them giraffes (< Arabic, zarafa), we called camelopards, or “camel leopards.”

3. Liger

“Get it right: My mother is a tiger.” (Wikimedia Commons)

Camelopard resembles a fanciful fusion like the liger, or a cross between a lion and tiger. While Napoleon Dynamite might have popularized the term, the blend liger, “the offspring of a lion and tigress” (OED), actually dates back to real breeding in the 1930s. Tigon, “the offspring of a tiger and lioness” (OED), is a few years older.

4. Chameleon

“Dwarf lion” (Pixabay)

The -leon in chameleon is also from the Greek leon. The name of this surreptitious reptile literally means “lion on the ground” in Greek: khamaileon, with khamai “on the ground” (as well as “dwarf”). The reason for the name isn’t exactly clear, but perhaps the lizard’s crest was thought to look like a lion’s mane. The figurative use of chameleon for an inconstant person is first cited in a letter by King James I of England back in the 1580s.

5. Sea Lion

Speaking of fantastic creatures, the sea lion referred to a kind of “lobster” or “crab” (early 1600s) before it did the marine mammal (1690s). Slightly older is lion of the sea for the crustacean, apparently translating the French lion de mer. In the 1660s, sea lion also named a mythical fabled mix of lion and a fish—a mer-lion, if you will. Sea lions themselves have also gone by the equally ferocious sea wolves.

6. Dandelion

We may not think of flowers as so fearsome, but dandelion is taken from the French dent de lion (medieval Latin dens leonis), due to the appearance of its toothed leaves.

7. Pants

You may have lions in your trousers or underwear, depending on which side of the pond you call home. As I touched on in an old post on the etymology of panic, pants is shortened from pantaloons, historically a kind of onesie. The name of this article of clothing comes from Pantalone, a Venetian caricature in Italian commedia dell’arte. Pantalone was once a common male name in Venice (hence the character’s name, like Jack or Tom in English), owing to a patron saint of the city, San Pantaleone. According to Ernest Klein, his name is from the Greek for “entirely lion,” apparently characterizing his virtues in some way.

8. Rampant

A rampant lion (Photo by me)

While we’re in my archives, rampant originally (1300s) referred to heraldic images “rearing with the forepaws in the air” (OED). This position became associated with ferocity, pushing the word towards it modern sense of “unchecked.”

9. Shih-tzu

“Lion son dog” (Pixabay)

The name of this small, long-“maned” dog comes from the Chinese shīzigǒu, literally “lion son dog.”

10. Singapore

And while we’re in East Asia, Singapore is said to ultimately derive from the Sanskrit Simhapura, “lion city.” Why the island was so named is unclear.

11. Singh

The Sanskrit simha (“lion”) also yields, via Punjabi, Singh, used as a title in ancient Indian warrior castes and later spread as a name in different cultures and communities in the region (think golfer Vijay Singh).

12. Other “lion” names

Finally, a number of other given names feature “lion” at their roots. As I explored for Nameberry, Leonard is a Germanic name meaning “strong as a lion”—literally “lion hard or hardy”—and Lionel is French for “young lion.” (Leon and Leonardo are other common variants in the Leonard family.) In Hebrew, Ariel is taken as “lion of God,” with Ari simply as “lion.” And let’s not forget Simba, from the Swahili name for “lion.”

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3 thoughts on “Lions, chameleons, and shih-tzus, oh my!: 12 “lion” etymologies

      1. My favorite domestics are bombays, scottish folds, and calicos (even though the calicos are more of a color pattern than a breed per sey). With the larger felines, I would have to say leopards and cheetahs are my favorites.


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