Header image
Michael Sheen
| 10TH AUG 2023

Zeno Thinks: Take pride in Lions

As England gear up for their World Cup quarter-final this weekend, I keep thinking of a surreal moment I had at the start of the tournament, when I saw the headline “Lioness believed to be on the loose in Berlin”.

My immediate, confused, thought was that Lucy Bronze had gone AWOL and was rampaging up and down Friedrichstraße.

Only after a little while did I realise it was a more literal, albeit less probable story, about an escaped big cat sighted prowling by Berghain.

Because there are some words that you encounter so often in a certain context that seeing them in another feels weird and wrong. Like, this is what most people associate with a hat trick. But then what do you call this, which features both an actual hat and trickery?

“Lioness” is another such word. It’s become utterly synonymous with the England women’s football team, or vice versa. And that’s a problem.

Just how synonymous can be seen with a crude editorial search: around 9,000 articles, depending on the data source, have referenced “the Lionesses” in a football context in the last month, with 68,000 interactions around the win on penalties against Nigeria.

It’s understandable that people would be so keen to use the nickname. Considered in isolation, it conjures up associations of powerful, graceful, frankly terrifying, deadly hunters. There’s a languid, understated, sinuous strength to the word. It sounds like a big cat prowling across the savanna actually looks. It holds a pleasing tension between things conventionally seen as feminine and things that aren’t. It’s a great word. If you had the excuse to use it, why wouldn’t you?

Well, a thing that niggles away at me is this.  

We don’t say actress anymore. Or comedienne. Or, if we’ve fallen into a wormhole into the 1920s, aviatrix. We say actor, comedian and aviator (or, if you will, “pilot”).

And the reason we’ve moved away from those names is because they say, implicitly, that there’s standard version of things (i.e., the male one) and then the female version is a variation.

It’s an unconscious bias that leads to air-conditioning being set to male body temperatures, smartphones being sized for male hands, and car safety features better protecting male body shapes.

In football it leads to a spate of serious injuries because boot technology has been designed for men, and female professional footballers lagging behind male professional footballers in exposure and reward.

It’s part of the lingering sense that there’s the World Cup, the England team, and also a Women’s World Cup and an England Women’s team.

Good work is being done to address this - the England Football website lists both the men’s senior team and the women’s senior team. But the Fifa website still lists the Women’s World Cup and “the” 2026 World Cup, and, colloquially, a sense of linguistic equality is yet to take hold. “Lion-esses” reinforces this.

The conventions of copywriting, especially sports copy, play a part. As perfectly skewered by Football Clichés, so-called elegant variation means that the likes of Harry Kane must, upon second mention, be referred to as “Spurs striker” (for now) or “England ace” or “captain fantastic” or “Three Lions’ six-goal double hat trick hotshot hero”. And so “England” need an alternative name.

But not “the Lionesses”.

If you have to give them a lion name, they’re the Three Lions. Like the men’s team. They wear the same badge with the same lions on the same white shirt and represent the same country in the same way.

If you want to be pedantic about it - and, let’s face it, I usually do - “lion” itself is a gender-neutral name for panthera leo. There are male lions and female lions. They look different, but they’re still lions.

(The strangeness of England wearing the medieval coat of arms of a French king decorated with African mammals on their 21st century football strip is another blog for another day.)

So when Bronze, back from her Berlin antics, and the rest of the team take kick off against Colombia on Saturday, be sure to cheer on the Three Lions.

(Or Colombia, if you’re Scottish.)