Simanaitis Says

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THERE HAVE been people called sycophants since 1575. But why are we so plagued with so many of them today? For just two examples, see Trump cabinet lovefest, June 12, 2017, and Mike Pence Praise, December 20, 2017.

A collection of sycophants: Trump’s first cabinet meeting, March 13, 2017. Despite their sycophancy, some are no longer around.

In my continuing collection of words for our time, I would be less than forthright were I to overlook the word “sycophant.” Not that there aren’t other excellent synonyms, but these others tend to be overtly anatomical.

Merriam-Webster defines a sycophant as “a servile self-seeking flatterer.” Just so there’s no ambiguity, M-W highlights the word “servile” and adds that this word means “of or befitting a slave or a menial position, meanly or cravenly submissive.”

Gee, how to capture so many people in one word; all, curiously, on the same side of the Congressional aisle.

But back to sycophant, which I confess I’m prone to type with an incorrect “n,” sync. I guess I’m led astray by knowing the word non-synchromesh.

How are you at shifting a non-syncromesh gearbox? How about one that’s fully synchronized? Um, sorry I asked.

Syncophant er… Sycophant comes from the Greek, συκοφάντης, sykophantēs which meant “slanderer.” Taking συκοφάντης apart reveals sykon, meaning “fig,” and phainein, meaning “to show or reveal.”

A fig revealer? Whatever were those ancient Greeks up to?

A fig tree, Ficus carica. Image from

It’s conjectured that fig revealers brought slander because they were, in a sense, tax snitchers on Greek farmers who attempted to cheat the government by undercounting their fig production.

Latin retained the “slanderer” idea, even if the Romans weren’t particularly into fig taxing. However, as M-W notes, “… by the time English speakers in the 16th century borrowed it as sycophant, the squealers had become flatterers.”

The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary is soft on fig squealers: “The origin of the Gr. word, lit. = “fig-shower,” has not been satisfactorily accounted for.”

On the other hand, it agrees with a second M-W conjecture about the thumb between first and second fingers: “It is possible that the term referred orig. to the gesture of ‘making a fig’ or had an obscene implication.”

No illustration is offered, but I’m going to try it out and see if anyone gets the drift of my meaning.

The OED offers early references. “1537 Cromwell: ‘Whereas Michael Throgmerton.. hath.. taken vppon him.. to become bothe a Sicophanta in Writing and a most vnkynde deuiser.. of thinges most.. traytorous….”

Thomas Cromwell, c. 1485–1540, English lawyer, statesman, and chief minister to King Henry VIII. Thomas is the one in TV’s Wolf Hall saga, not to be confused with Roundhead Oliver Cromwell.

I’m almost curious enough to look up Thomas Cromwell’s original to learn what the OED left out. Almost, but not quite….

Another OED reference: “1561 B. Googe: “Who can scape the poisened lips of slandrous Sicophants?”

The Sycophant-in-Chief. Image from Mike’s Story 46th President of the United States. (I am not making this up.)

The OED sure nailed the definition of sycophant for all times: “A mean, servile, cringing, or abject flatterer; a parasite, toady, lickspittle.”

And without any anatomical associations. Kudos, OED. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2017


  1. Michael Rubin
    December 23, 2017

    Ah, “toady” is a fine word, useful as a noun, adjective and even a gerundive version, i.e. Watch Mike Pence toadying up to His Egoness.

    • simanaitissays
      December 23, 2017

      Agreed, Michael. So many appropriate words, so little time.

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