What is a sycophant?

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Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: sycophant…

My word-of-the-week column doesn’t just address new and unusual words. It also focuses on ones that many of us know and use. I mention them because most of us are probably unaware of their etymology or origins.

My word today, which is from the novel The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks, falls into that category. The word is sycophant. Here is how Brooks used it:

For a long time, it seemed, he had moved in a press of people: members of his household, the men of his army, his sons, servants, sycophants.

As you likely already know, a sycophant is a person who acts in a servile or subservient manner toward someone important in order to gain advantage. The photo at the top of this post presents an image of such a person.

The word originated with the legal system of Classical Athens. Having no police force and only a limited number of officially appointed public prosecutors, most legal cases of the time were brought forward by private litigants. By the fifth century BC, however, so many litigants had brought so many unjustified prosecutions, that they became labelled with the term “sycophant.”

The etymology is particularly interesting. The Greek word sukophantēs, which means ‘informer,’ comes from sukon meaning ‘fig’ and phainein meaning ‘to show.’ The association was with informing against the illegal exportation of figs from ancient Athens.

The word retains the same meaning in Modern Greek, i.e. “slanderer,” and French, in which it also can mean “informer”; but in modern English, the meaning of the word has shifted to that of an “insincere flatterer.”