The idiom, ‘lion’s share’ has a commonly-accepted meaning, until you look back at the literature that seemed to inspire it.
Where did the phrase, “a lion’s share” actually come from and what’s it supposed to mean, anyway?
It turns out the idiom has a meaning that everyone assumes whenever they see or hear it, but yet its origins suggest a very different meaning from what most would assume.
When most people encounter “a lion’s share” in spoken English or print, they understand the meaning to be “the majority” or “a bigger portion” of something. If someone were to receive the “lion’s share” of a lottery jackpot, for example, they’d be expected to receive at least more than half and possibly as much as “practically all.”
But that might be less than what some who use the phrase could mean.
Let’s go back to the apparent source of the phrase. That origin is a few fables that are attributed to the famous Aesop. Various versions of the fable describe a lion going on a hunt with several other animals and catches and kills prey. The prize is divided into equal parts.
The lion then claims the first portion because he is the king of the forest. He claims the second because he is the strongest. He claims the third because he is the bravest. He claims the fourth version by declaring he will kill anyone who tries to claim it. In similar versions, he claims the first because he is king, the second because he’s their partner, the third because he is the stronger and the fourth because anyone who otherwise tries to claim it will be killed.
In these early versions, the lion gets all, not most of the prize; therefore, going back to the original text, a “lion’s share” means the entire bounty.
Wildlife enthusiasts, on the other hand, might suggest the lion would kill its prey and then eat as much of the best of it as it could hold, then abandon what was left of the carcass. Once abandoned, other animals might try to pick at whatever is left. In this case, “the lion’s share” would imply the “choicest” portions, though not necessarily all.
How’s that for overthinking a simple phrase?
If you hear “a lion’s share,” you may be safe in assuming that the meaning of the speaker is at least “most” of something; but you shouldn’t rule out the possibility that the phrase could also mean all of something, either.
If you aren’t absolutely certain and the exact quantity is actually significant, it’s probably better to clarify…just to be safe.