Trend Watch

Obama: 'You're Not Supposed to Be Sycophants'

In his final press conference, Obama stressed the importance of a free press

Sycophant spiked on January 18, 2017, when the word was used by President Obama during his final press conference. Addressing the journalists before him, he said:

You’re not supposed to be sycophants, you’re supposed to be skeptics, you’re supposed to ask me tough questions.

Sycophant means “a servile self-seeking flatterer,” or a person who praises powerful people in order to gain their approval.

The term comes from the Greek word sykophantēs, which meant “slanderer,” a combination of two other words: sykon (“fig”) and phanein (“to show or reveal”). There is no unanimity of scholarly opinion as to why a word meaning “fig-revealer” came to take on the sense of “slanderer”; one theory is that the original sycophants were tattling on fig merchants who failed to pay their taxes when selling the fruits at market, and another has to do with the sense of the word fig to indicate a gesture of contempt.

Calling journalists sycophants has long been a way to criticize them:

….the facility with which the Government has found literary tools and sycophants among French journalists half justifies the arbitrary insolence with which it has treated them as a class.
The Saturday Review, 29 Jun. 1861

The star is rich and famous, the journalist is not, yet we pretend to ignore our differences. The journalist is automatically suspect, a sycophant concealing a switchblade.
—Brian Johnson, Maclean’s (Toronto), 3 Feb. 2014

The handpicked local journalists attending presidential press conferences or official trips are sycophants who never have the courage to ask Erdogan a question like the one asked by a Finnish journalist a couple of days ago.
—Omer Taspinar, BBC Worldwide, 16 October 2015

Sycophant had another recent spike, when it was used by House Speaker Paul Ryan, who called Julian Assange “a sycophant for Russia.”

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