sy·​co·​phant | \ ˈsi-kə-fənt How to pronounce sycophant (audio) also ˈsī-, -ˌfant \

Definition of sycophant

: a servile self-seeking flatterer

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Other Words from sycophant

sycophant adjective

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

Did You Know?

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.

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 when her career was riding high, the self-deluded actress often mistook sycophants for true friends
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Recent Examples on the Web For these critics, Pence is a sycophant who debased himself for four years to avoid Trump’s wrath — only to take the blame when Trump insisted, wrongly, that Pence could unilaterally overturn the results of the 2020 election. Jill Colvin, Chron, "Trump's heir? Pence reemerges, lays groundwork for 2024 run," 30 Mar. 2021 People say nice things about Donald Trump Jr., now, which is both something that didn’t used to happen very often and a reflection of the extent to which his personal star has risen among the Republican Party’s professional sycophant community. David Roth, The New Republic, "How Don Jr. Became the Future of Trumpism," 27 Oct. 2020 Often sycophants or bullies, these one-note characters usually existed to teach the protagonist some kind of lesson. Hannah Giorgis, The Atlantic, "The Secret Lives of Teenage Sidekicks," 26 May 2020 But the aspects of it that still reward investigation — the satire of sycophants and the tortured portrait of Timon — do not jibe comfortably with this Occupy Athens interpretation. Jesse Green, New York Times, "Review: Shakespeare’s ‘Timon’ Gets an Occupy Athens Makeover," 19 Jan. 2020 Zucker plays Abby, a local popular girls' sycophant with dorky-cool glasses, and even in the few minutes of her screen time, her comic dry wit and timing invokes the otherworldly tone Smith is going for but can't quite extract from her star. Robyn Bahr, Billboard, "'Dickinson': Apple TV+ Series Review," 28 Oct. 2019 Harlan’s grown children, sycophants and weasels all, have gathered for the patriarch’s 85th birthday celebration. Tribune News Service, cleveland, "‘Knives Out’ review: A sleuth plays a ripping game of Clue, and a family of vipers wonders whodunit," 27 Nov. 2019 These sycophants, along with the anti-Maduro chavistas, are now worried. Mary Anastasia O’grady, WSJ, "Power and Money in Venezuela," 10 Feb. 2019 Employees who persisted in doing so were usually marginalized or fired, while sycophants were promoted. John Carreyrou, WIRED, "A New Look Inside Theranos’ Dysfunctional Corporate Culture," 21 May 2018

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'sycophant.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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First Known Use of sycophant

1575, in the meaning defined above

History and Etymology for sycophant

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, fancy 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.

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The first known use of sycophant was in 1575

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Last Updated

3 Apr 2021

Cite this Entry

“Sycophant.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 22 Apr. 2021.

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English Language Learners Definition of sycophant

formal + disapproving : a person who praises powerful people in order to get their approval

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