Far from flatterers, a sycophant used to be an inflammatory politician. It all goes back to the Greek word sykophantes, or "showing the fig". Yes, that's right. It is a portmanteau of sykon, "fig" (which is probably not PIE and likely traces to a Semitic source), and phanein, "to show" (from Proto-Indo-Europeann bha, or "to shine"; this connection has to do with sunrises). Anyway, the whole fig-showing thing has to do with an ancient hand gesture used by the Greeks as an equivalent of the modern-day middle finger: a crease in the fingers, symbolic of female genitalia, which was ironically called a "fig" because it also looked like that a little. This was used by Greek politicians and their supporters to anger the other side. Thus, weirdly, a sykophante became a "slanderer". The word then went into Latin as sycophanta, and into English as sycophant. Meanwhile, the definition was also changing: from "slanderer" to sort of "one who bears false witness to further himself" to "one who furthers himself". Generally, the word today is reserved for suck-ups. Curious, really, how sign language influenced verbal language in this occasion, and how a fig came to be associated with a teacher's pet.
Hello! I'm Adam Aleksic, a senior studying government and linguistics at Harvard University, where I co-founded the Harvard Undergraduate Linguistics Society. In addition to etymology, I also really enjoy trivia, politics, vexillology, geography, board games, conlanging, art history, and law.