Stories We Like: Novels For Language Lovers
1530s (in Latin form sycophanta), "informer, talebearer, slanderer," from Latin sycophanta, from Greek sykophantes, originally "one who shows the fig," from sykon "fig" + phanein "to show." "Showing the fig" was a vulgar gesture made by sticking the thumb between two fingers, a display which vaguely resembles a fig, itself symbolic of a vagina (sykon also meant "vulva"). The story goes that prominent politicians in ancient Greece held aloof from such inflammatory gestures, but privately urged their followers to taunt their opponents. The sense of "mean, servile flatterer" is first recorded in English 1570s.