A sycophant (Gr. (συκοφάντης)) is a servile person who, acting in his or her own self interest, attempts to win favor by flattering one or more influential persons, with an undertone that these actions are executed at the cost of his or her own personal pride, principles, and peer respect. Such a manner is called obsequiousness.
According to ancient authorities, the word (derived by them from συκος sukos, "fig", and φανης fanēs, "to show") meant one who informed against another for exporting figs (which was forbidden by law) or for stealing the fruit of the sacred fig-trees, whether in time of famine or on any other occasion (Plutarch, Life of Solon, 24, 2.). The Oxford English Dictionary, however, states that this explanation, though common, "cannot be substantiated", and suggests that it may refer instead to the insulting gesture of "making a fig" or to an obscene alternate meaning for "fig", namely sykon, which means cunt.
Another old explanation was that fines and taxes were at one time paid in apples, wine and oil, and those who collected such payments in kind were often called sycophants because they publicly handed them in.
Modern usage in other languagesIn modern Greek the term has retained its ancient classical meaning, and is still used to describe a slanderer or a calumniator.
In popular culture
- In Obert Skye's Leven Thumps series of children's books, "sycophant" also refers to a race of small furry creatures whose job is to aid people who have entered Foo.
- In Andrew Bird's song "Sic of Elephants", he makes a play on words between "elephants" and "sycophants", and describes behavior one might associate with sycophants.
obsequiousness in Danish: Sykofant
obsequiousness in German: Sykophant
obsequiousness in Spanish: Sicofanta
obsequiousness in Esperanto: Sikofanto
obsequiousness in French: Sycophante
obsequiousness in Dutch: Sycophant
obsequiousness in Polish: Sykofanta
obsequiousness in Russian: Сикофант
obsequiousness in Finnish: Sykofantti
obsequiousness in Swedish: Sykofant