LINGUIST List 6.201

Mon 13 Feb 1995

Disc: Origin of sycophant

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  1. , Sycophants: fig "show-ers"?
  2. , Re: 6.146 Sum: Sycophant and Sign of the fig
  3. , "Sycophant", more.

Message 1: Sycophants: fig "show-ers"?

Date: Fri, 03 Feb 1995 09:02:19 Sycophants: fig "show-ers"?
From: <CONNOLLYMSUVX1.MEMPHIS.EDU>
Subject: Sycophants: fig "show-ers"?

I don't do much etymology, but:

Several readers have claimed that _sicophant_ is derived from the Greek words
for 'fig' (sikos) and 'show' (phaino:). The first part is surely correct, but
the second seems problematic, since the relevant participle forms of _phaino:_
would be present _phainont-_ and aorist _phanont-_. Without a Greek grammar or
dictionary at hand, I would suggest rather that we look at the athematic Greek
verb _phe:mi_ (Doric _pha:mi) 'speak', which does have a participle _phant-_.
So maybe the sicophant is the 'fig-talker' rather than the 'fig-shower'. The
semantic connection, of course, would be that his words were sweet to the ear;
and certainly sicophants do more sweet-talking than fig-showing.

What do you think? Has this etymology been proposed? And if it has been
proposed and rejected, why?

Leo A. Connolly Foreign Languages & Literatures University of Memphis
connollymsuvax.memphis.edu Formerly "Memphis State University"
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Message 2: Re: 6.146 Sum: Sycophant and Sign of the fig

Date: Sun, 05 Feb 1995 10:02:24 Re: 6.146 Sum: Sycophant and Sign of the fig
From: <WDEREUSECCIT.ARIZONA.EDU>
Subject: Re: 6.146 Sum: Sycophant and Sign of the fig

A footnote to the fascinating sycophant summary:
When I was a kid in high school in the Paris area our French lit.
teacher told us that in Rabelais' works (either Gargantua or pantagruel),
Rabelais called the Catholics "papistes", and the Protestants "ceux qui
font la figue au pape". She said this was "un geste tres malhonnete", but
of course did not demonstrate it, and neither did any of the kids around
me. Thank you for finally enlightening me.
Willem J. de Reuse
Department of Anthropology
University of Arizona
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Message 3: "Sycophant", more.

Date: Wed, 08 Feb 1995 10:54:09 "Sycophant", more.
From: <BLUCHERUMBC2.UMBC.EDU>
Subject: "Sycophant", more.

Subsequent to my recent posting about the origin of the word "sycophant" I
received two comments which add interesting insights. I am forwarding them for
your information. Richard Blucher

>From Dave Wharton (WHARTONDiris.uncg.edu)

Liddel & Scott's _Greek-English Lexicon_ shows the word
SYKOPHANTHS in common usage not before the middle of the
5th century B.C. No ancient uses show any relation of the
word to the "sign of the fig."

Here's the political context of its use in the 5th century
and later, from the Oxford Classical Dictionary:

"Athens had no public prosecutors in the modern sense. Solon
permitted citizens to prosecute any wrongdoers. Inducements
were offered to volunteers in certain cases by
granting them a liberal share of fines and moneys recovered
from the treasury. the system worked: there was no lack of prosecutors.
But c. 450 B.C. abuses appeared. Men began to make a profession
of prosecutions for personal, political, and financial reasons.
These were called sycophants.
 In spite of constant references by Aristophanes and the orators, there
survives no legal definition of a sycophant....The most dangerous
type of sycophant was the blackmailer who extorted money so that the
guilty escaped punishment and the innocent paid blackmail..."

 *****

>From ZQV6656ACFcluster.NYU.EDU

A belated comment on your query on "the sign of the fig". In my homeland,
i.e. Istria which an Adriatic peninsula in the northwestern part of Croatia
(former Yugoslavia) we use this sign in two (related?) meanings.
The first one is the one mentioned by many other people who responded to you,
i.e. the sign of defiance and strong rejection. It does not have any
sexual or indecent connotation. Its second use is as a good luck sing
(much as crossed fingers in America), but then it is done on both hands for
either yourself or somebody else (maybe in defiance to "bad luck", "devil",
etc.)
Zvjezdana Vrzic

 *****
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