Etymology of term:
The origin of the Ancient Greek word συκοφάντης (sykophántēs) disparages the unjustified accuser who has in some way perverted the legal system. The original etymology of the word (sukon/sykos/συκος fig, and phainein/fanēs/φανης to show) “revealer of figs”—has been the subject of extensive scholarly speculation and conjecture. Plutarch appears to be the first to have suggested that the source of the term was in laws forbidding the exportation of figs, and that those who leveled the accusation against another of illegally exporting figs were therefore called sycophants. Athenaeus provided a similar explanation. Blackstone's Commentaries repeats this story, but adds an additional take—that there were laws making it a capital offense to break into a garden and steal figs, and that the law was so odious that informers were given the name sycophants. A different explanation of the origin of the term by Shadwell was that the sycophant refers to the manner in which figs are harvested, by shaking the tree and revealing the fruit hidden among the leaves. The sycophant, by making false accusations, makes the accused yield up their fruit. The Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition listed these and other explanations, including that the making of false accusations was an insult to the accused in the nature of "showing the fig", an "obscene gesture of phallic significance" or, alternatively that the false charges were often so insubstantial as to not amount to the worth of a fig. Generally, scholars have dismissed these explanations as inventions, long after the original meaning had been lost. Danielle Allen suggests that the term was "slightly obscene", connoting a kind of perversion, and may have had a web of meanings derived from the symbolism of figs in ancient Greek culture, ranging from the improper display of one’s “figs” by being overly aggressive in pursuing a prosecution, the unseemly revealing of the private matters of those accused of wrongdoing, to the inappropriate timing of harvesting figs when they are unripe.
SYCOPHANT Ambrose Bierce—n.
One who approaches Greatness on his belly so that he may not be commanded to turn and be kicked. He is sometimes an editor.
As the lean leech, its victim found, is pleased To fix itself upon a part diseased Till, its black hide distended with bad blood, It drops to die of surfeit in the mud, So the base sycophant with joy descries His neighbor's weak spot and his mouth applies, Gorges and prospers like the leech, although, Unlike that reptile, he will not let go. Gelasma, if it paid you to devote Your talent to the service of a goat, Showing by forceful logic that its beard Is more than Aaron's fit to be revered; If to the task of honoring its smell Profit had prompted you, and love as well, The world would benefit at last by you And wealthy malefactors weep anew — Your favor for a moment's space denied And to the nobler object turned aside. Is't not enough that thrifty millionaires Who loot in freight and spoliate in fares, Or, cursed with consciences that bid them fly To safer villainies of darker dye, Forswearing robbery and fain, instead, To steal (they call it "cornering") our bread May see you groveling their boots to lick And begging for the favor of a kick? Still must you follow to the bitter end Your sycophantic disposition's trend, And in your eagerness to please the rich Hunt hungry sinners to their final ditch? In Morgan's praise you smite the sounding wire, And sing hosannas to great Havemeyher! What's Satan done that him you should eschew? He too is reeking rich — deducting you.