Visual: The back half shows itself readily: phant, which will likely bring elephant to mind right away. It also looks a little like plant. The front half could be a diminished psycho or a deranged cosy. Whatever it is, the word is nine letters with two descenders and two ascenders.

In the mouth: In the standard pronunciation, it starts with “sick”; it doesn’t quite make “sicko” because the o is reduced to a schwa. Many people now pronounce it like psycho, though, with the vowel of the last syllable getting a fuller pronunciation, too. The y actually comes from the Greek letter upsilon, which has stood, over the course of time, for [u] and then for [y] (like German ü) and now for [i]. Whatever the vowels are doing, though, the consonants make a tour of the mouth: tongue tip to back, then lips and teeth to tongue tip again. It starts with a nice snake-like hiss.

Echoes: An elephant that’s a sicko or a psycho? Perhaps a fantasy or phantasm? Maybe a sidekick fanboy? The hissing [s] and the juxtaposition of [k] and [f] and [ə] also give a vulgar air.

Etymology and semantics: I almost want to make the word sucophant, which would add a taste of succotash and maybe of suck, but we get the upsilon as y thanks to its coming via Latin. The full Greek source is σῡκοϕάντης sukophantés, which comes from σῦκον sukon ‘fig’ and ϕαίνειν phainein ‘show’. Um, yeah, someone who shows a fig. The speculative explanations that have been made for this one quickly come to strain credulity. Some of the more plausible ones connect it to making a hand gesture – one that even today is called a “fig” in Italian: dare il fico – a gesture that, depending on whom you ask, mimics male or female pudenda. One source says that sukon was also a word in Greek for the female pudenda.

But what has all that to do with a sycophant? It may or – probably – may not help if I tell you that the Greek word referred to someone who brought malicious and baseless legal suits against others, generally for some kind of personal gain. The word still has that sense in Greek and French, but in English it came first to mean a tattle-tale and then, presumably because tattle-tales do so to curry favour, it shifted over to its current sense of ‘fawning lickspittle toady’ – that is to say, a suck-up sidekick fanboy.

Overtones and how to use it: The hissing and subtly vulgar sound combine with the three syllables and classical origin to make a rather high-toned knife in the belly. This is not a nice word: it can be used in polite company, but it cannot be used politely to the person described. It is, in short, a literary insult, a lexical scalpel that cuts sharply and smoothly but surely and deeply.

One response to “sycophant

  1. ‘Fawning lickspittle toady’ may now be my new favorite term!

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