What does sycophant mean and Where does the word “sycophant” come from?

Various attempts have been made to explain the original intent of the word sycophant.

Its source is the Greek sykophantes, which came from the two words, sykon, a fig, and phaino, to show.

Because the Greeks themselves used sykophantes to mean “an informer,” the general supposition is that the early “one who shows figs” was one who informed against persons who were attempting to export figs from Attica.

A person against whom such an accusation was made was subject to a stiff penalty. The Greeks also used sykophantes to mean “a false accuser,” so it is probable that many a false accusation was made against an unpopular person.

English usage originally followed the Greek sense, “an informer,” after the term was introduced into the language in the sixteenth century, but the object of the informer was soon inverted.

From being a person who bore tales against a person in high position, “sycophant” came to designate one who bore tales to that person and otherwise fawned upon him.

About Karen Hill

Karen Hill is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. Born in New York, her work has appeared in the Examiner, Yahoo News, Buzzfeed, among others.

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