LINGUIST List 6.146

Fri 03 Feb 1995

Sum: Sycophant and Sign of the fig

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  1. , "Sycopahnt" and "Sign of the fig"

Message 1: "Sycopahnt" and "Sign of the fig"

Date: Wed, 01 Feb 1995 09:54:39 "Sycopahnt" and "Sign of the fig"
Subject: "Sycopahnt" and "Sign of the fig"

The responses to my recent enquiry about the word "sycophant" and the
"sign of the fig" were very interesting and varied. In view of this,
instead of summarizing the responses I am forwarding them with minor

figs were first introduced in Greece as expensive (and therefore
prestigious status symbols) so that to own a fig tree was a big
deal and waiting for the tree to come to fruit-bearing age and
pick the fruit itself an even bigger deal. Security was often low
(no electric street lights) and so often non fig owners indulged
in stealing figs (it was probably a daredevil act too). So, it
was decreed that anyone caught stealing figs was a crime and
rewards were given to those who revealed (phanein) the fig (syko)
thieves. Of course, since the pilferers were probably less
happy about being finked on than the fig owners, the term 'fig
revealer/shower' took on very negative connotation. It's one thing
to be steal badly and get caught ('deservedly' for botching up) but
quite another to be told on: and so goes on the lore about how
sycophant came to be (still used in modern Greek, as it is in
English) but I cannot swear on its authenticity. At least that's
what we were taught in primary (Athens). Jenny Dalalakis,
McGill University, Linguistics,

The sign of the fig is a highly insulting hand gesture used, so far as I know,
in Italy (perhaps in other places, too.) It is made by making a fist, with the
thumb inserted between the index and middle fingers. The gesture represents th
e female genitalia. A photograph of someone making the sign of the fig appears
in the book Gestures, a book of some ten to fifteen years ago illustrating and
explaining various gestures, not just insulting ones, from a number of cul-


In Dante's Inferno, the sign of the fig is a sign of disrespect, in this
case aimed at God (presumably because of the forbidden apple/fig thing.


... by the sign of the fig you mean a gesture, quite common in
many European cultures, where you put your thumb between the first 2
fingers. Originally this was symbol for sexual intercourse and therefore an
obscene sign. ("Fig" is one of the euphemisms for the female genital.) I
know from a Viennese dialect dictionary that the sign used to be current
hereabouts, but it is not widely used now, whereas in Italy and esp. in
Russia (as to Greece, I forget) it is very current now. In Russian it has
lost its original obscene meaning and means simply something like "not at
all" or " you are pretending to work while you are not" or "the hell you
do". Though not indecent.. still indecent. According to Barbara Monahan,
(A Dictionary of Russian Gestures), "This is one of the most widely used
gestures in the Soviet Union.... it is not at all indecent or vulgar. It
is really the nonverbal equivalent of a very strong "No". (p. 86) (Among
adults it can be insulting.)


The etymology of SYCOPHANT is SUKON 'fig' and PHAINEN 'to show'. The
story is that at one time it was supposedly against the law to export figs
from Athens and SUKOPHANTES often turned in violators of the unpopular law
for their own personal gain, these toadies being widely despised. In a word,
SYCOPHANTS were originally informers on fig exporters.


The sign of the fig, also known by its Latin name, "manus ficus", was and
apparently still is a mediterranean equivalent of the North American
"giving the finger" insult. It is formed by placing the thumb between the
index and middle fingers of the closed, fist. Interestingly, in the
American manual alphabet, it is the handshape representing the letter"T",
but is avoided in the manual alphabets of many countries and replaced by
other similar but less offensive handshapes.
According to _The hand book_ (Linda Lee and James Charlton,Prentice-Hall,
1980), "The /fica/ or fig sign is an ancient copulatory gesture. Here the
thumb is thrust between the forefinger and the middle finger of the same
hand, simulating the penis thrust through a woman's labia. (...) It is
called the /fica/ or fig because the inserted thumb is about the size and
shape of the fig, which, being an ancient symbol of abundance, carried
with it a sense of virility and fecundity to the /mano in fica/. (...)"
(page 70).
I don't know anything about the semantic evolution of the word, but
informally, I can see how the present meaning of sycophant would apply to
the kind of person who would hang around on the sidelines of the action
at a trial, making rude gestures at an accused, deriving the right to do
so by associating him/herself with the people in power who were judging
the case.


I seem to vaguely remember from my high school days that a sycophant was
someone who kept an eye on the fig trees to make sure that no one stole the
fruit. Now, when someone was taken to court, because allegedly they had
stolen figs, the sycophant would provide evidence against them by pushing
aside the fig leaves and showing that some figs had been removed!

Unfortunately, I cannot remember why it was a crime to cut the fruit of
the fig trees! Were they intended to be offered to gods? That could be
a possible reason why they were so precious. I cann't remember really...

Incidentally, sycophantis in modern Greek means the 'one who presents in
court or in public unfounded accusations against someone'. This probably
relates to the fear of ancient Athenians that someone might 'throw' at
them accusations that they wouldn't have been able to cope with, since a
sycophant's testimony was not to be questioned in any way. Phantis in
Greek is an agent; it does not mean the sign, but the person who presents
something or makes something known. For example, ierophantis means someone
who unravels the sacred signs of gods, i.e.a seer or prophet. Modern
Greek has got both a verb sycopha'nto and an abstract noun sycopha'ntia.

One last bit of ethnographic detail: it is or at least used to be common
practice in Greece to cut figs from trees without considering issues of who
the tree/farm belongs to! It is believed that fig trees just grow on
their own without any special care and therefore do not belong to

Thanks for the opportunity to switch back to my mother tongue for a while!


Sykophantes ist ein verbales Rektionskompositum aus " phaino: to sukon
" (to point at the figs), das zum erstenmal bei Aristophanes
Acharner 559 (425 v. Chr.) auftritt.
Sein urspruenglicher Sinn ist schon in der Antike umstritten, vgl.
Lidell - Scott, s.v.:
Sykophantes ist ein verbales Rektionskompositum aus " phaino: to
su:kon" (to point at the figs), das zum erstenmal bei Aristophanes,
Ach. 559 (425 v. Chr.) auftritt.
Sein urspruenglicher Sinn ist schon in der Antike umstritten, vgl.
Lidell - Scott, s.v.:

 "orig. used of denouncers of the attempted export of figs from Athens
 acc. to ... Plu. Solon 24, 2.523b; ... of citizens entrusted with
the collection of figs as a part of public revenues etc. ... these
and modern explanations are mere guesses."

Ebenfalls bei Aristophanes (Pax 1350) findet sich der erste Beleg fuer
suykon = pudenda muliebra und das Feminum sukopha'ntria mit
komischer Bedeutung ("eine Frau die ihr su:kon sehen laesst", Plut.


Do you have Eric Partridge's _Origins_? If not, let me know. It has a
bit of stuff in it that is more clearly expressed than OED. Jon
 From "Origins" by Eric Partridge: "orig such an informer as denounced those
who sold contraband figs or who stole fruit from the sacred fig-trees, as the
ancients explained it; a rogue, because... he was addicted to the indecent

Thanks again,
Richard Blucher
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