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.
Adam Aleksic, an incoming freshman at Harvard University, has been described as the internet's sixth most famous etymologist. He has disturbing interests in linguistics, vexillology, geography, board games, limericks, and law, and he loves writing about himself in the third person.
The Etymology Nerd