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I was recently reading an account of Zola's exile in England after the Dreyfus affair and I came across a phrase I couldn't quite parse:

That gentleman, as I had surmised, was a trifle astonished at our appearance. But I told him that my friends were a couple of French artists, who had been spending a few weeks in London 'doing the lions' there, and who had heard of the charming scenery around Oatlands, and wished to view it, and possibly make a few sketches.

I can tell from the context that it's roughly equivalent to "seeing the sights", but I'm at a total loss as to how the phrase came to be (shortened form of "lions' share"? Lions of Trafalgar?) or what it means more specifically.

I've found it in this sense in several books of the late 19th century. It's not exactly common, but the way it's used suggests that a turn-of-the-century reader would have been expected to understand it without further explanation.

My other thought is that it might be a recurring OCR error, but I can't guess how it read originally if that's the case.

Is anyone familiar with the phrase or able to explain its origins to me?

Thanks very much.

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  • What an excellent phrase! I'm not familiar with it, and - like you - can only find instances of 'doing the lions' in turn-of-the-century contexts. Quite a few of the ones I found seemed to be from NZ or Australia - I wonder if that's relevant? Jun 1, 2021 at 17:05
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    I’m voting to close this question because it is geography rather than language based. 'Do' as in 'doing the Pyramids' is general reference (but has possibly been covered before). Jun 1, 2021 at 18:10
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    When you go to the zoo, you “do the lions” because they are the most impressive exhibit. You can skip the zebras and the monkeys, etc. So a visitor to any place who does the lions is simply aiming to see the highlights. Jun 1, 2021 at 18:45
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    The expression "doing the lions" appears to be a variant of "see the lions," which Robert Greene, writing in 1590, refers to as an "old proverb." So this is certainly a legitimate question of English language and usage.
    – Sven Yargs
    Jun 1, 2021 at 20:35
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    This was a fantastic question; I'm a native English speaker and consider myself fairly well-read, but I'd never heard the expression. Jun 2, 2021 at 15:24

3 Answers 3

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The expression is quite old as a term for sightseeing, and appears to have originated in the form "see the lions." J.S. Farmer & W.E. Henley, Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present (1896) has this entry for the earlier term:

Lion, subs. (old). ... 2. (colloquial).—An object (animate or inanimate) of interest. To SEE THE LIONS = to go sightseeing. [First three cited examples:] 1590 Greene, Never Too Late {Grosart,viii,68} This country Francesco was no other but a meere nouice, and that so newly, that to use the old proverb, he had scarce SEENE THE LIONS. 1785. Grose, Vulg. Tongue, s.v. Lion ... to SHOW THE LIONS and tombs, to point out the particular curiosities of any place,an allusion to Westminster Abbey and the Tower where the tombs and lions are shown. ... It is a standing joke among the city wits to send boys and country-folks on the first of April to the Tower ditch to see the lions washed.

The Greene reference is to "the Palmer's Story" in Robert Greene, Never Too Late (1590):

"This courtisan, seeing this countrey Francesco was no other but a meere nouice, and that so newly that, to vse the old prouerb, he had scarce seene the lions, she thought to intrap him and so arrest him with her amorous glances that shee would wring him by the pursse : wherevpon euery day shee would out at hir casement stand, and there discouer her beauties.”

Evidently "to see the lions" was already an old proverb in 1590. A playful allusion to the proverb evidently appears in Ben Jonson, The Alchemist (1610) at a point in the play where two cheats are attempting to defraud a supposed Spanish nobleman, newly arrived in London from the continent:

Subtle. See all the monsters; the great lion of all, Don.

An editor's note by Francis Mares from a 1967 edition of the play offers this discussion of the line:

  1. monsters ... lion} CF. [the quote from Greene]. The lions were those kept in the menagerie at the Tower of London, a tourist attraction abolished in 1834. Cf. The White Devil, ed. cit., v. ci. 265–8.

I couldn't find the relevant instance in Webster's The White Devil, so I don't know why the editor mentions it.

Although the first sentence that Farmer & Henley attributes to the Francis Grose, A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue is indeed present in the first edition (1785), the sentence about the April Fool's day washing of the lions first appears in the second edition (1788).

The earliest occurrence of the form "do the lions" in the relevant sense that I've been able to find is from "Chitchat upon Washington Styles" in Godey's Lady's Book (Philadelphia, February 1853):

After breakfast, the company usually adjourns to the drawing-room for a social chat, and to lay plans for the day. If you are to go to the Senate , or to “do the lions”—that is, the Patent-Office, Smithsonian Institute, or even a morning levee at the White House—a comfortable walking-dress is all you require.

From "Musical Correspondence," in Dwight's Journal of Music (Boston, February 13, 1858):

Well I got fairly into my rooms, which cost me about eighteen cents a day, attendance included. A day or so passed pleasantly enough in doing the lions of Florence, but that duty accomplished, and my intense study of the language, (which carried on in the Ollendorfian system, consisted of the translation of such practically useful sentences as: "Have you the red cow which I have? —No; I have not the red cow which you have, but that which my good uncle's grandmother has.") needing some relaxation, I decided to hire a piano-forte.

From "An Honest Arab" in Harper's Weekly (New York, April 7, 1860):

We had been on a fishing tour in the Highlands of Scotland, and, en route to town, were idling a day or two in "the gray metropolis of the north." ...

...

Next morning we spent in “doing” the lions.

And from "A Visit to the Engine Room," in The Cabinet (Melbourne, November 9, 1861):

A short account of what we saw and learnt the other day down in the engine-room, may be a source of information to those of your readers who have not had an opportunity of “doing the lions” in these lower regions of our little world, a department occupying the whole depth of the vessel amidships, and measuring alone more than one-third of her tonnage.

Interestingly, the three earliest middle-nineteenth-century matches for "do [or doing] the lions" occur in U.S. publications, and the fourth in a special Australian publication, whereas the earliest "see the lions" instances clearly come from English sources.


Conclusions

According to Francis Mares, writing in 1967, the expression "to see the lions" refers to visiting the menagerie in the Tower of London, where lions were kept from (it would seem) at least the 1500s until 1834. This destination was such a popular tourist attraction that "see the lions" was proverbial for "sightseeing" by 1590. The altered wording "do the lions" in the same sense of "sightseeing" is of obscure origin, but is recorded in U.S. sources by 1853.

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    Very comprehensive and elucidating answer! That answers it, as far as I'm concerned. Jun 1, 2021 at 21:25
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do

2.5 informal Visit as a tourist, especially in a superficial or hurried way.

We did Rome in three days.
If you are in New York, you really have to do the Empire State Building!

Lexico

One might think that it's quite likely to be related to the bronze lions by Edwin Landseer at the base of Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square, which are a noted tourist attraction.

However, OED has

lions

4a. plural. Things of note, celebrity, or curiosity (in a town, etc.); sights worth seeing: esp. in to see, or show, the lions.

This use of the word is derived from the practice of taking visitors to see the lions which used to be kept in the Tower of London.

1629 J. Smith True Trav. (Arb.) xviii. 872 After, one Master John Bull.., with divers of his friends, went to see the Lyons [in the Tower].
1732 H. Fielding Lottery (ed. 2) iii. 30 I must see all the Curiosities; the Tower,..the Lions, and Bedlam, and the Court, and the Opera.
1806 J. Beresford Miseries Human Life I. vii. 171 Escorting two or three coaches full of country-cousins..to the Lions, the Wax-work, the Monument, &c.

It refers to different lions entirely! The Royal Menagerie was housed in the Lion Tower at the Tower of London until it was demolished in 1835. The expression has had nearly 200 years to fall into disuetude. It's likely still to have been in reasonably current use while the Menagerie was within living memory (or the memory of parents).

I suppose, given the comment about the Derby, that the epithet was transferred to any attraction once the Menagerie had been dispersed.

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    That's how I read it initially, but the phrase seems to be used in non-London contexts as well, e.g., "doing the lions of the locality" (The Argosy, 1868), "doing the lions of the place" (Annual Report and Proceedings of the Belfast Naturalists' Field Club, 1888), etc. Maybe it's by analogy to the London landmark, though! Jun 1, 2021 at 17:15
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    I've even found a reference to attending the Derby as one of 'the lions'. Jun 1, 2021 at 17:20
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    @ConfusedInParis Found a better source than conjecture. Apologies to those who voted on the previous version (although an edit allows you to change your vote if you want to).
    – Andrew Leach
    Jun 1, 2021 at 19:16
  • I agree that the Royal Menagerie hypothesis is the most convincing one! Jun 1, 2021 at 21:26
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    Google N-grams is interesting here. "seeing the lions" and "viewing the lions" both peak in 1840, as one might expect from this. However, "doing the lions","do the lions", "done the lions" - these peak far later, in the mid 1860s and beyond. Make them singular and they peak in the present, but I suspect that's because of the unrelated phrase "do the lion's share". Jun 3, 2021 at 16:07
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The lion is the heraldic animal of England, and there are a remarkable number of statues or representations of lions in London, many of them associated with famous or historical buildings. See this webpage, which estimates that there are 10,000 of them.

Lion statue in Trafalgar square, London

For example, here is one of the four lions guarding Nelson's column in Trafalgar Square (image taken from Wikipedia).

Lion outside Westminster Palace

And here is a lion outside Westminster Palace (image taken from Wikipedia).

So when you are a tourist and seeing the sights of London, you will also (if you are paying attention) see a lot of lions. I assume this is where the phrase comes from.

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    This seems obvious to me as well, but there's no one from that age to confirm it. Sven's answer backs-up how the term means sight-seeing. Why does it mean that? Probably because of bronze lions, but who knows? Jun 2, 2021 at 2:12
  • This would have been my guess, but - apparently, per the other two answers - this is in fact wrong. Learn something every day.
    – Fattie
    Jun 2, 2021 at 12:24
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    @Fattie: Actually, I think it's quite possible that the expression do the lions originated with the lions in the Tower of London (the other answers show this pretty conclusively), but that this is the reason people kept using it for 70 years after there were no longer lions in the Tower. Jun 2, 2021 at 12:29

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