Today’s word comes from a random word generator.
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Part of Speech
- A servile self-seeking flatterer.
- A person who uses flattery to win favor from individuals that wield influence.
- A person who tries to get what they want by excessively praising or complimenting someone in order to make them feel attractive or important.
“In ancient Greece, sykophantēs meant “slanderer.” It derives from two other Greek words, sykon (meaning “fig”) and phainein (meaning “to show or reveal”). How did fig revealers become slanderers? One theory has to do with the taxes Greek farmers were required to pay on the figs they brought to market. Apparently, the farmers would sometimes try to avoid making the payments, but squealers—fig revealers—would fink on them, and they would be forced to pay. Another possible source is a sense of the word fig meaning “a gesture or sign of contempt” (as thrusting a thumb between two fingers). In any case, Latin retained the “slanderer” sense when it borrowed a version of sykophantēs, but by the time English speakers in the 16th century borrowed it as sycophant, the squealers had become flatterers.
“[This word is] borrowed from Latin sȳcophanta, borrowed from Greek sȳkophántēs, literally, “one who shows the fig,” from sŷkon “fig” (perhaps in reference to an apotropaic gesture made by inserting the thumb between the index and second fingers) + –phantēs, agentive derivative of phaínein “to reveal, show, make known”; perhaps from the use of such a gesture in denouncing a culprit.
NOTE: The origin of Greek sȳkophántēs, applied in ancient Athens to private individuals who brought prosecutions in which they had no personal stake, was already under debate by ancient writers. The “apotropaic gesture” hypothesis given here was presented early on by Arthur Bernard Cook (“CΥΚΟΦΑΝΤΗC,” The Classical Review, vol. 31 , pp. 133-36); Cook also usefully summarizes ancient speculation (as the idea that the original sȳkophántēs denounced those who illegally exported figs from Attica). The objection has been made that the basic notion “one who makes the fig gesture” does not account for the extremely negative connotations of the word (“slanderer, calumniator, etc.”), but other explanations (as, for example, that a sȳkophántēs revealed figs hidden in a malefactor’s clothing, or initiated a prosecution for something of as little value as a fig) seem even less likely. A more nuanced, if not entirely convincing account, based on presumed fig metaphors in Athenian culture, is in Danielle Allen, The World of Prometheus: The Politics of Punishing in Democratic Athens (Princeton University Press, 2000), p. 156 passim.~https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sycophant
Usage and Examples
Here are a couple of examples:
- The other students saw Keith as a sycophant because he always kissed up to the teacher.
- The President was at the podium, with a crowd of journalists, courtiers, and sycophants corralled behind a velvet rope.