LINGUIST List 6.146

Fri 03 Feb 1995

Sum: Sycophant and Sign of the fig

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  • , "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 editing:

    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, e-mail *****************************************************************************

    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- tures.


    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 anybody.

    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. 970)


    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 gesture..." ****************************************************************************

    Thanks again, Richard Blucher