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Carnival of the Etymologies

Sycophant is another powerfully obscene term. It comes from Greek sykophantes, which originally and literally means "one who shows the fig" (from sykon "fig" and phanein "to show"). To "show the fig" was an ancient vulgar gesture made by sticking the thumb between two fingers, a display which vaguely resembles a fig, itself symbolic of a cunt (sykon also meant "vulva"). The story goes that prominent politicians in ancient Greece held aloof from such inflammatory gestures, but privately urged their followers to taunt their opponents with them.

The resemblance seems to be in the way a ripe fig looks when it is split open; in Italian the word for "fig" also was used for "cunt," and the Shakespearean dismissive phrase a fig for ... probably reflects this. "Giving the fig" (French faire la figue, Spanish dar la higa) was an insult for many centuries. A variant in which the thumb was placed in the mouth may underlie the opening scene of "Romeo and Juliet."

See also: Etymonline --KYPark 03:23, 14 March 2007 (UTC)

While the connection to the "show the fig" gesture is interesting, the original meaning of the sycophant was that who reports the fig thief, an Athenian citizen who would regularly accuse other citizen in public court. Interestingly, in French, the word has kept that meaning, while in English it evolved further.