sycophant

noun

sy·​co·​phant ˈsi-kə-fənt How to pronounce sycophant (audio)
 also  ˈsī-,
-ˌfant
: a servile self-seeking flatterer
sycophant adjective

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In ancient Greece, sykophantēs meant "slanderer." It derives from two other Greek words, sykon (meaning "fig") and phainein (meaning "to show or reveal"). How did fig revealers become slanderers? One theory has to do with the taxes Greek farmers were required to pay on the figs they brought to market. Apparently, the farmers would sometimes try to avoid making the payments, but squealers—fig revealers—would fink on them, and they would be forced to pay. Another possible source is a sense of the word fig meaning "a gesture or sign of contempt" (as thrusting a thumb between two fingers). In any case, Latin retained the "slanderer" sense when it borrowed a version of sykophantēs, but by the time English speakers in the 16th century borrowed it as sycophant, the squealers had become flatterers.

Choose the Right Synonym for sycophant

parasite, sycophant, toady, leech, sponge mean a usually obsequious flatterer or self-seeker.

parasite applies to one who clings to a person of wealth, power, or influence or is useless to society.

a jet-setter with an entourage of parasites

sycophant adds to this a strong suggestion of fawning, flattery, or adulation.

a powerful prince surrounded by sycophants

toady emphasizes the servility and snobbery of the self-seeker.

cultivated leaders of society and became their toady

leech stresses persistence in clinging to or bleeding another for one's own advantage.

a leech living off his family and friends

sponge stresses the parasitic laziness, dependence, and opportunism of the cadger.

a shiftless sponge, always looking for a handout

Examples of sycophant in a Sentence

His press conference on January 11 was all aimed toward a single moment. The President was at his rostrum at the Élysée, with a crowd of courtiers, journalists, and sycophants herded behind a velvet rope. One reporter was allowed across the rope to put the same question, in exactly the same words, as he had put when Chirac had been nearing the end of his first term: Would he perhaps consider standing for a further five years? Julian Barnes, New York Review, 29 Mar. 2007
And swirling all around were coteries of agents, managers, execs, and moneymen; publicists and journalists, gawkers and sycophants. Daniel Fierman et al., Entertainment Weekly, 9 June 2006
Where his father liked to have sycophants, he likes to be with intellectuals. He likes confrontation. Franklin Foer, New Republic, 14 Jan. 2002
be careful not to mistake sycophants for true friends
Recent Examples on the Web The series follows Elena’s increasingly unhinged behavior as the sycophants around her fall all over themselves to cater to her every whim. The Arizona Republic, 27 Feb. 2024 Set in 1999 at the safely distant moment of Y2K panic, The Palace follows aristocrats, celebrities, politicians, and sycophants at their self-indulgent gathering in the most luxurious hotel in Gstaad, Switzerland. Armond White, National Review, 14 Feb. 2024 Succession did a lot of things right — hiring Nicholas Britell to compose its instantly delectable theme music and score the show, turning Mr. Darcy into the sniveling sycophant that is Tom Wambsgans, making Willa write the flop play Sands that bankrupts her sugar daddy. Vulture, 21 Dec. 2023 Observers such as venture capitalist and early Twitter investor Chris Sacca have suggested this is because Musk surrounds himself with sycophants. Christiaan Hetzner, Fortune, 30 Nov. 2023 Priscilla’s Elvis is an insecure jock, a rudderless pretty boy with more charisma than talent who prefers the company of pistol-toting sycophants to anyone else. Andrew Marzoni, The New Republic, 3 Nov. 2023 But the reality is that having business (and personal) relationships with sycophants can be dangerous and could seriously harm your business. Stephanie Dillon, Rolling Stone, 22 Feb. 2023 Meanwhile, at the party, Logan gets fed up with the parade of sycophants. Brandon Taylor, The New Yorker, 26 Mar. 2023 His failure to develop a more amusing perspective from there can be chalked up to the sycophants who praise his every word, plus an unshakeable nostalgia for an era when he was widely characterized as a visionary — and criticized far less. Miles Klee, Rolling Stone, 13 Apr. 2023

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'sycophant.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History

Etymology

borrowed from Latin sȳcophanta, borrowed from Greek sȳkophántēs, literally, "one who shows the fig," from sŷkon "fig" (perhaps in reference to an apotropaic gesture made by inserting the thumb between the index and second fingers) + -phantēs, agentive derivative of phaínein "to reveal, show, make known"; perhaps from the use of such a gesture in denouncing a culprit — more at fig entry 1, fantasy entry 1

Note: The origin of Greek sȳkophántēs, applied in ancient Athens to private individuals who brought prosecutions in which they had no personal stake, was already under debate by ancient writers. The "apotropaic gesture" hypothesis given here was presented early on by Arthur Bernard Cook ("CΥΚΟΦΑΝΤΗC," The Classical Review, vol. 21, issue 5 [August, 1907], pp. 133-36); Cook also usefully summarizes ancient speculation (as the idea that the original sȳkophántēs denounced those who illegally exported figs from Attica). The objection has been made that the basic notion "one who makes the fig gesture" does not account for the extremely negative connotations of the word ("slanderer, calumniator, etc."), but other explanations (as, for example, that a sȳkophántēs revealed figs hidden in a malefactor's clothing, or initiated a prosecution for something of as little value as a fig) seem even less likely. A more nuanced, if not entirely convincing account, based on presumed fig metaphors in Athenian culture, is in Danielle Allen, The World of Prometheus: The Politics of Punishing in Democratic Athens (Princeton University Press, 2000), p. 156 passim. — The application of sycophant to a flatterer, which departs entirely from the Greek meaning, is peculiar to the history of the word in English. In the sixteenth century English writers seem to have applied sycophant in particular to slanderous accusers who had found their way into the retinue of the powerful. Once the word became a generally used label for ill-willed people close to those in power, it presumably became associated with obsequious flattery, a stereotypical negative quality of such people.

First Known Use

1575, in the meaning defined above

Time Traveler
The first known use of sycophant was in 1575

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Dictionary Entries Near sycophant

Cite this Entry

“Sycophant.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sycophant. Accessed 23 Apr. 2024.

Kids Definition

sycophant

noun
sy·​co·​phant ˈsik-ə-fənt How to pronounce sycophant (audio)
 also  -ˌfant
: a person who flatters another in order to get ahead
sycophantic
ˌsik-ə-ˈfant-ik
adjective
sycophantically
-ˈfant-i-k(ə-)lē
adverb

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