AskDefine | Define sycophant

Dictionary Definition

sycophant n : a person who tries to please someone in order to gain a personal advantage [syn: toady, crawler, lackey]

User Contributed Dictionary



First attested in 1537. From etyl la sycophanta from etyl grc συκοφάντης from σῦκον + φαίνω. The gesture of "showing the fig" was a vulgar one, whom was made by sticking the thumb between two fingers, a display which vaguely resembles a fig, which is itself symbolic of a cunt (sykon also meant "vulva"). The story behind this etymology is that that politicians in ancient Greece steered clear of displaying that vulgar gesture, but urged their followers sub rosa to taunt their opponents by using it.


  • /ˈsɪkəfænt/ or /ˈsɪkəfənt/


  1. One who uses compliments to gain self-serving favor or advantage from another.
  2. One who seeks to gain through the powerful and influential.


one who uses compliments to gain self-serving favor or advantage from another person.


  • 1775 — John Adams, Novanglus Essays, No. 3
    This language, “the imperial crown of Great Britain,” is not the style of the common law, but of court sycophants.
  • 1787 — Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 71
    They know from experience that they sometimes err; and the wonder is that they so seldom err as they do, beset, as they continually are, by the wiles of parasites and sycophants, by the snares of the ambitious, the avaricious, the desperate, by the artifices of men who possess their confidence more than they deserve it, and of those who seek to possess rather than to deserve it.
  • 1841 — Charles Dickens, Barnaby Rudge, Ch. 43
    this man, who has crawled and crept through life, wounding the hands he licked, and biting those he fawned upon: this sycophant, who never knew what honour, truth, or courage meant...
  • 1927-29 — Mahatma Gandhi, An Autobiography or The Story of my Experiments with Truth, Part II, Preparing for South Africa, translated 1940 by Mahadev Desai
    Princes were always at the mercy of others and ready to lend their ears to sycophants.

Extensive Definition

A sycophant (Gr. (συκοφάντης)) is a servile person who, acting in his or her own self interest, attempts to win favor by flattering one or more influential persons, with an undertone that these actions are executed at the cost of his or her own personal pride, principles, and peer respect. Such a manner is called obsequiousness.
In ancient Greece the word was the counterpart of the Athenian "delator": a public informer.
According to ancient authorities, the word (derived by them from συκος sukos, "fig", and φανης fanēs, "to show") meant one who informed against another for exporting figs (which was forbidden by law) or for stealing the fruit of the sacred fig-trees, whether in time of famine or on any other occasion (Plutarch, Life of Solon, 24, 2.). The Oxford English Dictionary, however, states that this explanation, though common, "cannot be substantiated", and suggests that it may refer instead to the insulting gesture of "making a fig" or to an obscene alternate meaning for "fig", namely sykon, which means cunt.
Another old explanation was that fines and taxes were at one time paid in apples, wine and oil, and those who collected such payments in kind were often called sycophants because they publicly handed them in.

Modern usage in other languages

In modern Greek the term has retained its ancient classical meaning, and is still used to describe a slanderer or a calumniator.

In popular culture

  • In Obert Skye's Leven Thumps series of children's books, "sycophant" also refers to a race of small furry creatures whose job is to aid people who have entered Foo.
  • In Andrew Bird's song "Sic of Elephants", he makes a play on words between "elephants" and "sycophants", and describes behavior one might associate with sycophants.


See also

sycophant in Danish: Sykofant
sycophant in German: Sykophant
sycophant in Spanish: Sicofanta
sycophant in Esperanto: Sikofanto
sycophant in French: Sycophante
sycophant in Dutch: Sycophant
sycophant in Polish: Sykofanta
sycophant in Russian: Сикофант
sycophant in Finnish: Sykofantti
sycophant in Swedish: Sykofant

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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