Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Episode 128: King of the Jungle Show Notes

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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast

Episode 128: King of the Jungle

Record Date: October 9, 2021

Air Date: October 13, 2021



Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase. 

I’m Shauna Harrison


And I’m Dan Pugh

Each week we take a group of words and try to tell the story from their entry into the English language, to how they are used today.

This week I want to talk about a confusing title. One that’s given to an animal whose name conjures images of strength and courage. I want to talk about lions and their moniker, King of the Jungle. 


As I alluded to, if someone mentioned King of the Jungle now, they are usually referring to a lion. Which is weird, because lions don’t live in jungles, right?

Well before we can answer that, we need to explore a little history of the two words, “King” and “Jungle”

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, King means:


A male sovereign ruler of an independent state or people, esp. one who inherits the position by right of birth; a male monarch. Also: the head or chief of a territory, tribe, city state, etc., having the status of such a ruler.

End Quote

King, in the sovereign ruler context, comes to English from a Germanic word that was borrowed into the Slavonic and Finnish languages. The original Germanic word was more like “descendant of a royal family”, though some early Germanic kingships were based on military leadership or by acclamation - which is a fancy way to say by enthusiastic agreement or approval. The OED notes the original Germanic could have had a wider use, like “leader of a kinship group” in the sense of a people or a nation.

But it’s the second part of the first definition that seems to fit more with how we refer to lions. As a refresher, that second definition is:


Also: the head or chief of a territory, tribe, city-state, etc

End Quote

So the lion, as the King of the Jungle, could make sense in that they are territorial animals and seem to dominate that territory. They could be said to be Kings of it. 

But Jungle?

Again to the Oxford English Dictionary, who notes the word Jungle comes from a Hindi and Marathi word meaning desert, waste, or forest, which itself comes from an earlier Sanskrit word meaning dry, dry ground, or desert.

The entry for jungle says:


In India, originally, as a native word, Waste or uncultivated ground; then, such land overgrown with brushwood, long grass, etc. hence, in Anglo-Indian use:

  • Land overgrown with underwood, long grass, or tangled vegetation...

  • A particular tract or piece of land so covered; esp. as the dwelling-place of wild beasts.

End Quote

When I think of a Jungle, I think of a heavily forested area with large trees, thick vegetation, and an assortment of wild animals. 

But the OED is saying jungle covers a much broader set of biomes than how we may use it today.  

Here are two early examples:

Quick note, this next one includes a European term for the native inhabitants of India which is generally regarded as derogatory, that word being Gentoo. 

The first example is from “A code of Gentoo laws, or ordinations of the pundits” (Originally translated from Sanskrit to Persian by Brahmin scholars, then in 1776 from Persian to English by Nathaniel Brassey Halhed)


Land Waste for Five called Jungle.

End Quote

So 5 years growth would have been enough to call an area jungle

Here is the second example, in a 1783 speech by Edmund Burke (later published in his 1815 works) he said:


That now almost throughout a dreary desart, covered with rushes, and briers, and jungles full of wild beasts.

End Quote

This one points toward the usage of “dwelling-place for wild beasts”. 

I wonder how much our thoughts on the word “Jungle” are shaped by the popularity of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book”, which used the term forest and jungle interchangeably. The stories began as a collection of short stories published in magazines in 1893 and 1894, before being put into one collection as a book that was published in 1894. The Second Jungle Book (that’s the name of it) is an additional collection published in 1895 and are mostly fables. The stories were brought to life on the screen in Disney’s 1967 which further cemented our view of “jungle” as being synonymous with “forest”, though the origins of the word jungle, as we now know, are more broad than Kipling and Disney made them out to be. 

Armed with this knowledge, it makes a little more logical sense for how lions dominating their open territory to being dubbed the “King of the Jungle”. But when did the phrase start to be used?

The phrase “King of the Jungle” isn’t in the Oxford English Dictionary, so I wasn’t able to utilize their vast knowledge to compare against what I could find. The first attestation I saw was in a British newspaper, The Naval and Military Gazette and Weekly Chronicle of the United Service in the January 6, 1838 edition in a piece called “Tiger Hunting”

A speech by General George Washington Morgan on Saturday August 31, 1867 as reported in the Monday morning edition of the:

If you want to go follow that source yourself, I’ll just warn you it is pretty racist. 

One myth that I saw occasionally cited as the source of the phrase, but obviously isn’t since we saw it in use more than 40 years earlier, is by known entertainer and con artist P.T. Barnum in his 1889 work:

Wow that guy was full of himself. 

Anyway, in chapter 82 - yes, you heard that correctly, chapter 82 - is titled King of the Jungle. But in this case, he is referring to the gorilla as the king of the jungle.

I only read this chapter, and since it was full of the needless murder of wild animals so they could steal the baby animals I decided I didn’t want to read any more of it.

Let’s look at another example talking about a lion tamer who fainted while performing...

I found a crossword puzzle in the Evening Star out of Washington DC dated February 1, 1937 in which “King of the Jungle” was a clue (46 across) and the answer was Lion. 

But we see examples of other animals being labelled as King of the Jungle. And a quick, informal poll I did with our followers on Patreon and on Twitter showed that while most people who were online during that 1 hour window did equate lions with being king of the jungle, some folks think of gorillas or even tigers as being in that role. 

But that still doesn’t exactly lead us to why the lion stands out among the minds of many. However, I have a few ideas - though little evidence - that may give some possible reasons. 

In a 2019 story from the Washington Post, Kellie Carter Jackson write about an African Oral Tradition that could have easily been the public domain source of Disney’s The Lion King. 


End Quote

We also have the rise of Christanity in the mix. 

  • Revelations 5:5 calls Jesus the Lion of tribe of Judah

  • Proverbs 28:1 says the righteous are as bold as a lion

  • Proverbs 30:30 describes the lion as the mightiest among beasts and and does not turn back before any

  • Hosea 11:10 says the Lord with roar like a lion and his children shall come

  • Ezekiel 10:14 describes the cherubim with the four faces as a cherub, and human, a lion, and an eagle

Even in places where the Christian Bible uses the lion as imagery for evil, the lion is depicted as strong and powerful

  • 1 Peter 5:8 Your adversity the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour

  • Hosea 13:8  I will tear open their breast, and there I will devour them like a lion, as a wild beast would rip them open

And of course a slew of additional folks who were compared to lions like Richard the Lionheart (King of England), Henry the Lion (Duke of Saxony), William the Lion (King of the Scots), Louis VIII, King of France known as the Lion or even Maahes, the Egyptian God of War, son of Ptah, who has a lions head.

Before we get to how we see the phrase used today, we have a few sponsors to thank!

A Quick Thank You


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Modern Uses

King of the Jungle was a working title for what would later be released, albeit with far less violence, as Disney’s 1994 animated hit, The Lion King.

During the 90s, and before and after, too, it was common for knock off versions of popular animated movies to be released around the same time. They were hastily done and quickly produced. They were often bought by unsuspecting grandparents who didn’t realize they were getting the same thing that was asked for. GoodTimes Entertainment - a direct to home video distributor - was well known for this in the 90s, but since Disney was making movies based on public domain folk tales, GoodTimes survived Disney’s legal challenges. Cue Leo the Lion: King of the Jungle from 1994.

Speaking of the concept, I’m gonna link here in the show notes and on Patreon to a 2014 article by MentalFloss titled 20 Mockbuster You Might Confuse for the Real Movie

Mockbuster is a portmanteau - or in this case I’ll borrow from Helen Zaltzman of The Allusionist podcast and call it a portmanNO - of the words mock and blockbuster. The phrase first appears in Google’s Ngram Viewer in 1994 - I’m sensing a trend - though according to John Hess at Filmmaker IQ notes the concept described by mockbuster has been around since the close of the silent film era. 

"mockbuster" – WordSense Online Dictionary (8th October, 2021) URL:

The History of the Mockbuster (23 minutes long) 

King of the Jungle is a 2000 crime drama film starring John Leguizamo, Rosie Perez, and Cliff Gorman. The synopsis from imdb read:


Seymour's happy New York existence comes to a tragic end after he witnesses the murder of his mother, a renowned civil rights activist. When he finds a firearm in the home of his best friend, he embarks on a deranged quest for revenge.

End Quote 

King of the Jungle is a 2018 song by the group Shanguy consisting of Italian DJ NRD1 and indie/pop singers Eon Melka and Frank-O. This is their second single and alternates French and English lyrics. Interestingly, the video shows a gorilla in the role of King of the Jungle. 

I want to close with this fascinating article from from Alastair Sooke dated 1 December 2017, called “Why the Lion is Art’s Most Powerful Symbol”

A couple of examples he gives in the article


Anyone who has visited Trafalgar Square in London will know that tourists tend to gravitate to one feature above all others: the set of four enormous bronze lions, each weighing seven tonnes, at the foot of Nelson’s Column.

End Quote

He goes on to note:


Artists have been depicting lions for millennia, to the point that, as a motif, they are so commonplace they are often overlooked. For instance, lions often appear as faithful companions in paintings of Saint Jerome. Rubens painted dramatic lion hunts. So did Delacroix. In Henri Rousseau’s The Sleeping Gypsy (1897), a moonlit lion sniffs a figure sleeping beside a mandolin. Meanwhile, a spectacular orange lion prowls the streets outside a jailhouse in Port of Spain, in a hallucinatory painting from 2015 by the Scottish artist Peter Doig. 

Lions are a staple element in heraldry. An ancient bronze statue of a winged lion is the symbol of Venice. In the same city, a splendidly slumberous lion guards the monument to the sculptor Canova in the church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari.

In short, the list of lions in art is endless. Earlier this year, the Iranian sculptor Parviz Tanavoli curated an exhibition in Tehran featuring hundreds of lions in the art of his own country. Some of the artefacts on display were created thousands of years ago.

End Quote 

Wrap up...

This one seems like a weird phrase on the front end, but makes way more sense once we know that ‘jungle’ has a broader meaning than we thought. And it seems clear the lion has earned a place of respect from Africa to Europe to Asia to the Americas. Much of what we see today regarding the lion as well as our mental imagery of jungles is based on largely subconscious influences. Of course the biases from those influences can run negative just as easily as they can run positive. 

But I personally looked at this phrase and thought, “What an odd take”. And now, digging into some of the history, I feel quite comfortable in declaring the lion - at least in a figurative sense - King of the Jungle. 



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Words belong to their users.

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