I have been curious about a usage of the word "king".

a country where football is king (Oxford Dictionaries Online)

In mergers and acquisitions, cash is king. (Cambridge)

This is a very common usage, but it doesn't seem to accord with dictionary grammar. According to both Cambridge Dictionary and Macmillan, the noun king is a count noun. But the absence of an article here suggests it is either used uncountably, or even adjectivally. Are dictionaries wrong? Which case is it?

Another slightly different example is as follows:

It is widely considered to be king of the supermarket chains. (ibid.)

These sentences read perfectly natural and idiomatic to me, but I am still wondering, if "king" is a noun here, why is it not preceded by the definite article?

  • 2
    Compare to the usage with a person: "Charles II was king of England". I think it's fairly clear that "king" in that context is not an adjective, nor a mass noun, but a singular noun without an article. An older question that is relevant: Why “be king”, not “be a king”? – herisson Aug 12 '18 at 23:17
  • @sumelic Thank you. Strangely, I don't have any problem with sentences like "He was elected president." or "He became king." I understand why there's no article in these sentences. But I don't feel as certain about "a country where football is king". I see it as a separate case from the older question. The answers under that question and another question linked there do not seem sufficient to answer mine. If king is a singular noun in "football is king", I fail to see how it is different from another sentence in Cambridge Dictionary. "The lion is often called the king of the jungle." – user280704 Aug 13 '18 at 0:05
  • 3
    It is a separate thing (your first two examples), but it nevertheless appears to've originated as a bare role NP (for general description see The Cambridge Grammar by Huddleston, Pullum, et al. (2002), p.409). For example, a learner's dictionary, LDOCE, considers be king a separate vocabulary unit. Further, even though the lion is the king of the jungle is the usual expression, the lion is king of the jungle isn't unheard of (e.g., here). – userr2684291 Aug 13 '18 at 1:26
  • 3
    Football is king, like king cotton, is an example of a metaphor. King in its ordinary meaning refers to a person; metaphorically, however, it simply means the most important force in a particular system. Saying that football is king means it's the most popular and culturally important sport. Saying that cotton is king means it's the most important economic system. – John Lawler Aug 13 '18 at 2:12
  • @DeAn forum.wordreference.com/threads/… this link may help answer the lion is the king of the jungle doubt – bookmanu Aug 13 '18 at 12:43

The Oxford A-Z of Grammar & Punctuation says king is used as a noun in the phrase Cash is king.(see page 156)

Cash is King

The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English as referred to by userr2684291 in the comments on OP's post has the following definition for "be king"

if something is king at a particular time, it has a big influence on people

• In the arts, too, contention is king.

• During the middle 1800s, cotton production was king in the South.

• As at the weight-loss programs I attended in junior high, the scale was king here.

• In 1995, it was stock -- not cash -- that was king.

• If the flounder still exists it will be king. - foreign words and phrases scattered here and there!

TFD provides some more examples of Cash is king

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