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The Ancient Greek Story Behind the Word “Sycophant”

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Figs, Syko in Greek, represented an important product of the ancient Athenian economy. Credit: E.Abadjieva/Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY-SA 4.0

We all know about the great richness of Greek words and how they have been influential in so many other languages. Speaking about the Greek origin of a word is familiar to most people.

However, in the case of the production of figs, there is a “legal issue” related to the ancient culinary world. That has led to the evolution of a word, sycophant, commonly found to this day in plenty of idioms.

The word ‘sycophant’ is a word with a special meaning, and the reason becomes clear to all who know the story.

Dictionary meaning of sycophant

If you look the word ‘sycophant’ up in any dictionary, the explanation will more or less be the same. A sycophant is, namely, one who “praises powerful or wealthy people in an insincere way, usually to gain some advantage,” according to the Cambridge Dictionary.

This is something many people have most likely witnessed in some way.

The Greek meaning

Talking about the actual meaning of the word, there is a slight difference between the English and Greek languages. In both cases, it refers to a devious person. In Greek, however, it denotes a person who through false statements, tries to belittle someone, again probably to achieve a personal goal.

Thus, while in English a sycophant is one who praises in a devious way, in Greek, such an individual is one who actually calculatingly criticizes for the sheer purpose of personal gain.

Ancient history

In terms of ancient history, the masterpiece Deipnosophistae, meaning “dinner-table philosophists,” written by Athenaeus of Naucratis is relevant. In his second book, the Egyptian writer of Greek origin writes:

“And Isistrus, in his Attics, says that it was forbidden to export out of Attica the figs which grew in that land, in order that the inhabitants could have the exclusive enjoyment of them. And as many people were detected in sending them away surreptitiously, those who laid informations against them before the judges were then first called sycophants.”

But the question that remains is why they called them as such. To be specific, the word ‘sycophants’ originates from two separate words. Sìkon (Greek: Συκον), meaning ‘fig’ and fènin (Greek: φαινειν), meaning ‘to show or indicate.’ Thus, this refers to the protagonist of the book, or “one who shows figs.”

Sycophants were, namely, those individuals who reported the illegal export of figs outside the territory of Attica. They helped local authorities identify people who were using an illegal market for profit. Of course, we may wonder why they were helping local authorities and whether they were intimidated into participating in this activity or if it was for some practical advantage.

In fact, according to ancient Athenian law, in the event of a confirmed charge, as compensation, the accuser received an amount equal to that inflicted on the offender.

The fig market

Hence, as can be deemed, the fig market was quite an important resource in Ancient Greece and they used to consider it to be on par with the oil and wine industry. In the words of a certain Philomnestus, unknown to us today:

“Since the sycophant got his name from these circumstances, because…at that time there were fines and taxes imposed upon figs and oil and wine, by the production of which imposts they found money for the public expenses; they called those who exacted these fines and laid these information sycophants, which was very natural, selecting those who were accounted the most considerable of the citizens.”

This is why the word sycophant was a term for a devious person. However, it still served the local authorities and legality of the public market.

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