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”.
Search World Wide Words
Recently added pieces
Zoilism; Fish-faced; Poach; Immensikoff; Habiliments; The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker; Agister; The Word at War; Not so green as you’re cabbage-looking; Peely-wally; Draw a line in the sand; Porphyrogeniture; Set one’s cap at; Epicaricacy; Furthest and farthest; Hide one’s light under a bushel; Jentacular.
Support World Wide Words!
Donate via PayPal. Select your currency from the list and click Donate.
Buy from Amazon and get me a small commission at no cost to you. Select your preferred site and click Go!