I’ve known for a long time that sycophant comes from Ancient Greek σῡκοϕάντης ‘(professional) informer, someone who says bad things about public figures for pay’ (literally ‘fig-shower’: σῦκον ‘fig’ + ϕαν-, root of ϕαίνειν ‘to show’—nobody knows how the sense developed, though there are many theories); what I didn’t realize until now is that French preserves the original sense of ‘informer,’ and that the word originally had this sense in English as well (the OED, in an entry that hasn’t been updated since 1919, traces both “informer, tale-bearer, malicious accuser” and “mean, servile, cringing, or abject flatterer” back to the 16th century, but the first sense died out pretty early, after the 17th century turning up only in phrasing like “the informers, or sycophants as they were called at Athens”). I discovered this via a ТЕТРАДКИ post (in Russian) by Alexander Anichkin, or Sashura as he calls himself around these parts, which discusses a recent contretemps in which one Russian journalist made fun of another for using the word сикофант [sikofant] in the English sense of ‘self-seeking flatterer’ when the Russian word (which is rare enough it’s not included in the Oxford dictionary) has the French sense of ‘informer.’ Sashura points out that the journalist being mocked has English as a primary foreign language, while the mocker knows French. An interesting run-in, and I wonder if the Russian word will develop a confusing double sense because English is now so widely known.

Incidentally, my New Great Russian-English Dictionary (which I made fun of here) has the unhelpful definition “сикофант m sycophant, informer,” and my Kettridge’s French/English English/French Dictionary has the even less helpful entry “sycophante m, sycophant.” Dudes, get your heads out of the seventeenth century!


  1. it’s even more fun than I’d thought.
    Informer, how do they put it as “доносчик” or “информатор”?
    Like Oxford, the 80 thousand word Ozhegov (1999), arguably the most widely used Russian dictionary, doesn’t have it.

  2. According to my 2001 electronic P’tit Robert, sycophante is only “littéraire et vieux”. The etymology given there is “dénonciateur des voleurs de figues (sukon)”.
    This would be a remarkably specialized occupation, more so than “someone who says bad things about public figures for pay”. There is probably no longer much demand for either kind of person, though. Pretty much anybody these days is willing to say bad things about public figures at no charge, regardless of whether figs have been stolen, or other items crucial to national security such as fig leaves.

  3. “delate” is, I think, a verb I’ve seen applied only to France in the Second World War.

  4. Pity Kettridge failed there, because I find it usually excellent. When other dictionaries give a selection of words which does not suit my sense of the original, I find Kettridge invariably give3s me the word I want. Although in one of the two editions I have, it did translate “hearing aid” as “trompette d’oreille” …

  5. The old-timey kind were called cornets acoustiques, I think.

  6. The etymology given there is “dénonciateur des voleurs de figues (sukon)”.
    That etymology is so out-of-date even the century-old OED entry says it “cannot be substantiated.” (They go on to add “It is possible that the term referred originally to the gesture of ‘making a fig’ or had an obscene implication: compare fig n.2.”) Shame on Robert for presenting it as fact!

  7. I used which is linked to Collins. It gives one meaning for French to English – informer.
    The monolingual French dictionary gave this selection: nm délateur, espion (vieilli) mouton (vieilli) indic, dénonciateur, calomniateur, délatrice, donneur, calomniatrice (vieilli) mouchard (vieilli) accusateur, donneuse
    My Robert-Collins printed French-English/English French dictionary (2003) doesn’t have an entry on sycophante in the F/E section, but has two in the E/F section (n. flagorneur and sycophantic adj. obsequieux). Which is probably an indication that it’s less widely used in French than in English.

  8. The obscene etymology of “fig-shower” seems fairly plain to me, for someone who’s willing to “uncover” public figures. Perhaps the array of fanciful older ettmologies just comes from folks who were unwilling to mention such vulgarity?

  9. That’s what I wanted to explore too. Is there a connection between the sycophant and the fig in the two phrases in English and Russian, which have the same meaning: not give a fig and мне это до фига – I don’t care?
    To show a fig – показать фигу – in Russian means to refuse someone [to do or to give something].

  10. Quoted for surrealism. Normally I strip product names, but this one seems worth keeping for its associations.

    Is also for this reason, the geometric structure of heel Dior pointy shoes now is becoming a supermodel star photos to be bestowed favor on newly.

    Another spam refers to a “feather waistcoat”, which apparently is real, but reminds me somehow of the “wingity jacket” of de Camp and Pratt’s novel Land of Unreason: cold-weather gear for fairies.

  11. J. W. Brewer says

    Surely an instance of fig-showing ought to be a sycophany, rather than sycophancy?

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