Word: sycophant

Pronunciation: SI-kə-fənt / SI-kə-fant

Part of Speech: noun

Definition: a person who acts obsequiously toward someone important in order to gain advantage

Source: Oxford Dictionaries


She turned you into this untrusting, crazy, jealous sycophant! [her friends stare at her] All right, so I don’t know what “sycophant” means, but the rest is right!

– Phoebe Buffay, Friends (Season 4, Episode 18 – The One With Rachel’s New Dress)

Remember that word I wrote about last week? It’s time to put it to good use. The first (and probably only) time I ever heard the word “sycophant” was in an episode of Friends, when the women try to help Ross overcome his irrational fear that he might lose his girlfriend Emily to his ex-wife’s life partner Susan. In an attempt to convince him that he’s being unnecessarily jealous, Phoebe uses an uncommon word that she’s never used before – to humorous effect, as Ross’s jealousy is hardly an indication that he wants to please important people just to get ahead.

A “sycophant” is someone who acts in an excessively obedient or attentive manner toward an important person as a means of gaining an advantage. The word arose in the mid 16th century as a reference to informants, and can be traced back through the French noun sycophante to the Greek noun sukophantēs, meaning “informer”. This noun is comprised of the noun sukon “fig” and the verb phainein “to show”, which may be a reference to the insulting “fig gesture” made toward informers.

To be honest, I have yet to find a good place for the word “sycophant” in my fiction. I do like the sound of it, though, so it would certainly be a good alternative if I were to write a character who relentlessly pleases others for their own gain and wanted to avoid vulgar terms such as “suck-up” and “kiss-ass”. Perhaps I’ll use it in one of my stories someday, but if you tend to create such phonily obsequious characters, you can already start writing a “sycophant” or two into your fiction! Good luck!

What are your thoughts on this word? Any suggestions for future “Word of the Week” featured words?

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