Trend Watch

Ryan: Assange "a sycophant for Russia"

"He steals data and compromises national security." But what does any of this have to do with figs?

Sycophant (“a servile self-seeking flatterer”) spiked in lookups on January 4th, 2017, following House Speaker Paul Ryan’s comments on Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.

Asked about Mr. Assange, Mr. Ryan called him a “sycophant for Russia. He leaks, he steals, and compromises national security.”
—Damian Paletta, The Wall Street Journal, 4 Jan. 2017

The term may be traced back to the earlier Greek word sykophantēs, which meant “slanderer.” This was a combination of two other, seemingly improbable, 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.” Various theories have been posited; one 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.

The word has been used, often in biting commentary, since the early 16th century. Our earliest evidence currently comes from a 1536 book by Philipp Melanchthon: “Agaynst the byting of a sycophaunt or sclauderer there is no remedy.”

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