Tuesday 23 February 2010

Lionized Lions (and Lionel Singh)

According to The Independent Banksy "is so lionised by the art world establishment (and now by the movie world too) that his edge risks becoming blunted."

You might deduce from this, dear reader, that Banksy is suffering from leontiasis ossea - a grotesque medical condition where the bones of the face grow and grow and grow until you start to look like a lion - and indeed if this were the case then it would explain why Banksy never appears in public. But The Independent was, of course, referring to the Tower of London.

The lion is half of the Royal coat of arms, which is a little odd as lions are not and never have been native to these shores (although I'm reliably informed that unicorns roam wild in East Anglia). This bothered Henry I who decided to have some imported and kept at the Tower of London in the Royal Menagerie along with a few camels (history does not record how the camels felt about this).

In the eighteenth century the lions were made available to the gawping public. You had to either pay thruppence to get in or just bring along a cat or dog to feed to the hungry attractions - a policy that could be usefully adopted by London Zoo. The lions were the tourist draw in London. As with the Eiffel Tower in Paris, The Colosseum in Rome or the NEC in Birmingham, so a trip to London was incomplete without having "seen the lions" which became a phrase equivalent to "seeing the sights". Lion became a term for anything worth going to stare at. The lions were the celebrities - sought after and gawped upon - and so celebrities began (in 1715) to be called lions. Lion meant celebrity. By 1800 famous writers were being called literary lions and celebrity spotters came to be called lion-hunters*, all because of those lions in the Tower.

Being a lion, as any celebrity will tell an interviewer, is a tiresome business. Nobody likes to be gawped at. It's embarrassing. Walter Scott, a literary lion, said of the London celebrity party circuit in 1809:

If I encounter men of the world, men of business, odd or striking characters of professional excellence in any department, I am in my element, for they cannot lionize me without my returning the compliment and learning something from them.

He invented the word and the word stuck, and that's why Banksy has been lionised. It's all the fault of Henry I and Walter Scott.

It only remains for me to tell you that Lionel means little lion and that Singh means lion, so in the unlikely event of somebody being called Lionel Singh I would be ridiculously pleased. Oh, and dandelions are lions' teeth. Oh, and it's a symbol of Saint Jerome.
The paw little thing

P.S. There seems to be no consistency in English spelling between lionise and lionize, I have servilely followed the dictionary.
*Hence, since you ask, Mrs Leo Hunter in Pickwick Papers


  1. I was once corrected by this bag at my work for using z rather than s. She simplistically thought s was correct Anglosaxon, z more American.

    I pointed out to her that the s is a Victorian affectation, something to do with appearing French. I got fired the next day, but made a valid point.

    Is it true what certain scholars say that the purest English is found somewhere in the Appalachians, and that American forms are generally more vital and archaic than the EU harmonized spellings of today's Englishmen?

  2. The purest English is spoken in and around Inverness. I have it on good authority. (My granny). For example, the Invernesians pronounce every single letter in the word 'film'.

    Also, I much prefer pis-en-lit to dandelion.

  3. I once had an Irish biology teacher who compared the retina to the "fillum" in a camera. Being a Londoner through and through, I dutifully wrote "Fulham" in my exercise book, and was very confused when I could not find this mysterious device in any of the school library's guides to science or photography.

  4. It turns out that there are quite a lot of Lionel Singhs, I just hadn't googled. There's also a Peter Stone of Facebook. Now I'm off to find Simon Monkey.
    The purest English is spoken by me.

  5. So, it's MacDogberry, is it?

  6. Simon Monkey as in Simian? I have to add that my fiance is indeed called Simon Gibbons, which is certainly close.