12 NOVEMBER 2005, Page 18

Mind your language

The learned Peter Jones, who always surprises me by how young he is, considering his almost first-hand knowledge of the ancient world, invited or challenged me to explain how sycophant, which to the Greeks of old meant an informer and false witness, came to mean a flatterer. I foolishly thought I’d found out after a few minutes’ rooting around. Deeper spadework showed how wrong I was.

The Greek sukophantes, literally ‘figrevealer’, had a picturesque derivation thrust upon it, sceptically retailed by Plutarch in his life of Solon. The translation by Thomas North (1579), used by Shakespeare, says: ‘Wee may not altogether discredite those which say, they did forbid in the olde time that men should carie figs out of the countrie of Attica, and that from thence it came that these pickthankes, which bewray and accuse them that transported figges, were called Sycophantes.’ A likely story! As Dr Jones implied, the folk etymology does not dispel the obscurity of the origins of sycophant. But what of the pickthankes? That means a flatterer or one who curries favour. In a letter, John Wesley writes: ‘You are not yet (nor probably I) aware of pickthanks. Such were those who told you I “did not pray for you by name in public”. And they are liars into the bargain, unless they are deaf.’ The pickthankes were interpolated by North into that passage; Plutarch makes no such reference. So I thought at first that North had introduced the notion of ingratiation in connection with sycophans. A little more searching found that the extension in meaning long predates the agency of North. Plautus (254–184 BC) uses the word to mean a flatterer, and in one play, the Trinummus, has a character called Sycophanta. By the time sycophant came into English in the 16th century it ranged in meaning from ‘informer’, through ‘calumniator’, ‘traducer’, ‘deceiver’ and ‘imposter’, to ‘parasite’, ‘toady’, ‘lickspittle’ and ‘mean, servile, cringeing or abject flatterer’. I suppose the stock figure of the sycophant gathered a bundle of characteristics.

As for that obscure object of desire, the origin of the word sycophant itself, the OED suggests that we consider ‘the gesture of “making the fig”’ or some other obscene implication. I’m not quite sure what other obscene implication the editors had in mind. When, at the beginning of The Alchemist, Jonson writes ‘What to do? Lick figs out at my —–’ he is referring to piles. It can hardly be those figs that the original sycophants were showing.