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Sycophant: The Birth of a Political Keyword

Sycophant was once a rare word, reserved for high-brow literature and nonfiction. However, in these politically tumultuous times, the word has regained popularity. "I said to the President this morning, I can't afford to be a sycophant to you," Anthony Scaramucci, the short-lived White House Communications Director, said in a July CNN interview. It was an interesting word choice, not because of its elegance or complexity, but due to its origins.

Merriam-Webster defines sycophant as "a servile self-seeking flatterer". In layman's terms, a sycophant is a brownnoser, a flunky, or a suck-up. Even if you haven't adopted the word into your everyday vocabulary, you've most certainly used one of its synonyms before.

Sykophantƒ �s, the ancient Greek spelling of the word, was derived from the words sykon ( "fig") and phanein ( "to reveal"). Thus, the literal translation would be "fig revealer". But how did fig revealers become brownnosers? The association is not as improbable as it seems. In those times, Greek farmers were forced to pay a hefty tax on figs they sold at public markets. Some farmers hid their figs to avoid paying the tax. However, some citizens would squeal, leading to financial punishment for the farmers and putting the fig revealers in good standing with local authorities. To the farmers, the fig revealers were just suck-ups to the police and not truly interested in doing the right thing.

Over time, sycophants developed an even stronger bond with the government. They became overly litigious private citizens who were hired to prosecute fig smugglers and writers, despite having no law experience or personal stake in the cases. Their primary objective was profit and staying in the good graces of government officials. Thus, they quickly earned a bad reputation throughout Greece. Statutes of limitation were introduced to reduce their power in the courts. And Greek playwright Aristophanes satirized sycophants in much of his work including The Birds and The Acharnians.

In the 1530s, the Latin word sycophanta was adopted. It was defined as "Informer, talebearer, and slanderer" then.

Today, sycophant doesn't carry as much weight as it did in ancient Greek times, but its meaning is still potent, combining the definitions from both its Greek and Latin origins. And quite often, it's used in relation to politics on both a national and local scale.

"Steven Mnuchin may be the greatest sycophant in Cabinet history," American economist Larry Summers tweeted, after Mnuchin objected to NFL protests during the National Anthem. Though some politicians have used the word with a tinge of humor. "I don't think I've been accused of being a Mike Bloomberg sycophant," New York Governor Andrew Cuomo joked, as he praised the former NYC mayor during a September Cornell Tech meeting. Sycophants are even present in office politics. An Economic Times article argued against being the "Chief Sycophant" when trying to impress a new boss in the workplace.

Though sycophant is most certainly applicable to other industries and situations beyond politics, it hasn't escaped its political beginnings. And judging by the context of its modern use, it's a trend that will continue.

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Read some of our other etymological posts:
Berserk
Profligate
Portentous