First attested in 1537. From Latin sȳcophanta (“informer, trickster”), from Ancient Greek συκοφάντης (sukophántēs), itself from σῦκον (sûkon, “fig”) + φαίνω (phaínō, “I show, demonstrate”). The gesture of "showing the fig" was a vulgar one, which was made by sticking the thumb between two fingers, a display which vaguely resembles a fig, which is itself symbolic of a σῦκον (sûkon), which also meant vulva. The story behind this etymology is that politicians in ancient Greece steered clear of displaying that vulgar gesture, but urged their followers sub rosa to taunt their opponents by using it.
sycophant (plural sycophants)
- One who uses obsequious compliments to gain self-serving favor or advantage from another; a servile flatterer.
- One who seeks to gain through the powerful and influential.
- (obsolete) An informer; a talebearer.
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- 1775, John Adams, Novanglus Essays, No. 3
- This language, “the imperial crown of Great Britain,” is not the style of the common law, but of court sycophants.
- 1787, Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 71
- They know from experience that they sometimes err; and the wonder is that they so seldom err as they do, beset, as they continually are, by the wiles of parasites and sycophants, by the snares of the ambitious, the avaricious, the desperate, by the artifices of men who possess their confidence more than they deserve it, and of those who seek to possess rather than to deserve it.
- 1841, Charles Dickens, Barnaby Rudge, Ch. 43
- this man, who has crawled and crept through life, wounding the hands he licked, and biting those he fawned upon: this sycophant, who never knew what honour, truth, or courage meant...
- 1922-3, Louise and Aylmer Maude (translators), 1863, Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, Book IX Ch. XI
- It is only because military men are invested with pomp and power and crowds of sychophants flatter power, attributing to it qualities of genius it does not possess.
- 1940, Mahadev Desai (translator), 1927–29, Mahatma Gandhi, An Autobiography or The Story of my Experiments with Truth, Part II, Preparing for South Africa
- Princes were always at the mercy of others and ready to lend their ears to sycophants.
- (one who uses compliments to gain favor): ass-kisser, brown noser, suck up, yes man
- (one who seeks to gain through the powerful): parasite, flunky, lackey
- See also Thesaurus:sycophant