The lion is the symbol of Britain, Jamaica, Israel and Sri Lanka among other nations. It has been a symbol of strength and courage for millennia. The English word lion comes from Old French lion, from Latin leonem (nominative leo) “lion; the constellation leo,” from Greek λέων leon (genitive leontos). But where did this Greek word come from? It is widely believed to be from a non-Indo-European language, perhaps Semitic based on a proposed relationship to Hebrew labhi “lion,” and Egyptian labai, lawai “lioness”.
The evidence of this Semitic root is widely contested though. The Greek and Semitic words could instead be derived from a mutual root of neither Indo-European nor Semitic origin. There are many similar words for lion in ancient languages such as Akkadian labbu. There were lions in Greece and Turkey up until the 1st c. AD so no doubt there were words for them, but what were the Indo-European ones? The Hittites of Turkey were Indo-European but their word for lion was walwa which does not resemble the Indo-Aryan words for lion at all. In any case linguists agree that lion is not an Indo-European word because there is a known equivalent from the language group.
We can be sure that the Sanskrit word for lion Sinha, coming from the Sanskrit word सिंह Siṃha “lion”, is of Proto-Indo-European origin due to a relation to Armenian inj “panther”. In ancient civilisations the distinctions between lions and panthers were not important, hence why the word leopard basically meant the same thing as lion and has the same etymological root. The tiger is not mentioned even once in the whole of the Rigveda, despite being an important animal in India. This might be because Siṃha, which occurs in the Rigveda many times, stood for both of the big cats. American archaeologist Mark Kenoyer believes it meant “tiger” rather than “lion” but in any case its descendants are used in Indic languages to refer only to lions.
सिंह Siṃha is sometimes transliterated as Singh and was used as a title by Kshatriya warriors in Northern India. The earliest recorded examples of names ending with Simha are the names of the two sons of the Saka ruler Rudraraman in the second century CE. Singh is now common title, middle name or surname among Indian people. Although originally used only by the Kshatriya warrior caste, it was later adopted by numerous castes and communities, most notably the Sikhs, whose Guru Gobind Singh mandated it for all males.
The Buddhist ethnic majority of Sri Lanka are called Sinhalese (or Sinhala) as is their language. The term ‘Sinha’ (or Siha/ Sinhe/Singhe/Singha /Singho) is commonly used by the Sinhalese to refer to themselves and lions, which they believe themselves to be descended from. While sinha means “lion”, the second part of Sinhala ‘la’ or ‘le’ means “blood”, giving the meaning ‘lion’s blood’ in reference to their mythological origin.
Sinhalese is an Indo-European language and is heavily influenced by the classical language of Buddhist scripture Pali which is also Indo-European. The influence of Pali on non-Indo-European languages is clear in South East Asia due to the spread of Theravada Buddhism in the region. In Thailand สิงโต S̄ingto “the lion” or สิงห์ sing “lion” comes from the Sanskrit root via Pali. Anyone who has visited Thailand will be aware of the popular brand Singha beer and its logo with an oriental lion.
Quite interestingly, the words for lion are used figuratively to mean “hero” in languages from both etymological lineages described here.
EDIT***It has been brought to my attention that lion may also be of Proto-Indo-European descent coming from *li(w)– (WC) ‘lion’ according to Mallory and Adams ‘Oxford Intro to Proto-IE and the PrIE World‘ 2006
“Words more explicitly suggesting hunting include *leuhx- where Slavic retains the verbal meaning, e.g. Rus lov ‘capture, catch’, but the nominal derivative *le´uhxo¯n ‘he of the hunt’ is found in Greek and Tocharian (Grk le´o¯n ‘lion’ [< *‘the hunter’; whence by borrowing the words for ‘lion’ in most European languages, including English], Toch B luwo ‘animal’ [<*‘the hunted’]).”