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Q From William Garneau: What is the origin of sycophant? The only meaning I have is someone who shows a fig.

A That’s the English translation of the original classical Greek word sukophantes, which comes from sukon, a fig, and phainein, to show. The Greek word meant an informer, or a false accuser, but the association with figs is less than obvious.

One theory has it that it relates to a period when the exportation of figs from ancient Athens was prohibited by law, something we know about from the writings of Plutarch. So the word could refer to somebody who informed on those who broke the law in this way. But there’s no evidence and modern scholars dismiss it.

A better explanation is that giving someone the fig is an ancient expression for the obscene gesture of putting the thumb between two fingers. (The word for fig in Greek, Italian, English and other languages has long been a low slang term for the female genitals, from a supposed resemblance.) It could be that the Greek word referred to the action of an informer figuratively (so to speak) giving the fig to the criminals he informed against.

When sycophant first appeared in English in the sixteenth century it had this original meaning of an informer, but quickly moved through a sense of someone who bears tales to a person of higher status to its modern sense. This the big Oxford English Dictionary explains in one of its better definitions as “A mean, servile, cringing, or abject flatterer; a parasite, toady, lickspittle”.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 27 Nov. 1999

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 27 November 1999.