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Sycophant

Sycophant was a term used in the legal system of Classic Athens but in modern English it refers to someone practicing sycophancy
i.e. obedient flattery.

The word sycophant has its origin in the legal system of Classical Athens. Having no police force and only a limited number of
officially appointed public prosecutors, most legal cases of the time were brought by private litigants. By the fifth century BC,
however, this practice had given rise to abuse by litigants who brought unjustified prosecutions. Such a litigant was called a
"sycophant".[1] The word retains the same meaning in Modern Greek, i.e. "slanderer"[2], and French, in which it also can mean
"informer"; but in modern English, the meaning of the word has shifted to that of an "insincere flatterer" (see
sycophancy).

Contents
1 Etymology
2 In Athenian culture
2.1 Orations
2.2 Measures to suppress sycophants
2.3 Satires
3 Modern Greece
4 Shift in meaning in modern English
5 References

Etymology
The origin of the Ancient Greek word (sykophnts) is a matter of debate, but disparages the unjustified accuser who has
in some way perverted the legal system.[1] The original etymology of the word (sukon/sykos/ fig, and phainein/fans/ to
show) "revealer of figs"has been the subject of extensive scholarly speculation and conjecture. Plutarch appears to be the first to
have suggested that the source of the term was in laws forbidding the exportation of figs, and that those who leveled the accusation
against another of illegally exporting figs were therefore called sycophants. Athenaeus provided a similar explanation. Blackstone's
Commentaries repeats this story, but adds an additional takethat there were laws making it a capital offense to break into a garden
and steal figs, and that the law was so odious that informers were given the name sycophants. A different explanation of the origin of
the term by Shadwell was that the sycophant refers to the manner in which figs are harvested, by shaking the tree and revealing the
fruit hidden among the leaves. The sycophant, by making false accusations, makes the accused yield up their fruit. The Encyclopdia
Britannica Eleventh Edition listed these and other explanations, including that the making of false accusations was an insult to the
accused in the nature of "showing the fig", an "obscene gesture of phallic significance" or, alternatively that the false charges were
often so insubstantial as to not amount to the worth of a fig.[3] Generally, scholars have dismissed these explanations as inventions,
long after the original meaning had been lost.[4][5] Danielle Allen suggests that the term was "slightly obscene", connoting a kind of
perversion, and may have had a web of meanings derived from the symbolism of figs in ancient Greek culture, ranging from the
improper display of one's "figs" by being overly aggressive in pursuing a prosecution, the unseemly revealing of the private matters
[5]
of those accused of wrongdoing, to the inappropriate timing of harvesting figs when they are unripe.

In Athenian culture
The traditional view is that the opprobrium against sycophants was attached to the
bringing of an unjustified complaint, hoping either to obtain the payment for a
successful case, or to blackmail the defendant into paying a bribe to drop the case.[1]
Other scholars have suggested that the sycophant, rather than being disparaged for
being motivated by profit, was instead viewed as a vexatious litigant who was over-
eager to prosecute, and who had no personal stake in the underlying dispute, but
brings up old charges unrelated to himself long after the event.[5] Sycophants
included those who profited from using their position as citizens for profit. For
instance, one could hire a sycophant to bring a charge against one's enemies, or to
take a wide variety of actions of an official nature with the authorities, including
introducing decrees, acting as an advocate or a witness, bribing ecclesiastical or civil
authorities and juries, or other questionable things, with which one did not want to
be personally associated.[6] Sycophants were viewed as uncontrolled and parasitic,
lacking proper regard for truth or for justice in a matter, using their education and
skill to destroy opponents for profit in matters where they had no stake, lacking even
[7]
the convictions of politicians, and having no sense of serving the public good.

Lysias, by Jean Dedieu


Orations
The charge of sycophancy against a litigant was a serious matter, and the authors of
two surviving oratories, "Against the Grain Dealers" (author Lysias), and "Against
Leocrates" (author Lycurgus) defend themselves against charges that they are
sycophants because they are prosecuting cases as private citizens in circumstances
where they have no personal stake in the underlying dispute. In each instance, the
lack of personal involvement appears to have been the crux of the accusation of
sycophancy against them, the merits of the cases being separate matters from
whether they had a right to bring them.[5]

Measures to suppress sycophants


Efforts were made to discourage or suppress sycophants, including imposing fines
on litigants who failed to obtain at least one-fifth of the jury's votes, or for
abandoning a case after it had begun (as would occur if the sycophant was bribed to
drop the matter), and authorizing the prosecution of men for being sycophants.[1]
.[5]
Statutes of Limitation were specifically adopted to try to prevent sycophancy
Illustration by Peter Newell for the
poem "The Sycophantic Fox and the
Satires Gullible Raven" in Fables for the
Frivolous, by Guy Wetmore Carryl
Sycophants are better illustrated through the satires of Aristophanes. In The
Acharnians, a Megarian attempting to sell his daughters is confronted by a
sycophant who accuses him of illegally attempting to sell foreign goods; and a Boeotian purchases a sycophant as a typical Athenian
product that he cannot obtain at home. A sycophant appears as a character in The Birds. One of his lost plays had, as its principal
theme, an attack against a sycophant. In Wealth, the character, Sycophant, defends his role as a necessity in supporting the laws and
preventing wrongdoing.[1]

Modern Greece
In every day use, the term refers to someone that purposely spreads lies about a person, in order to harm this persons
reputation, or otherwise insult his honor (i.e. a slanderer), and is doing so (i.e. slander, n., to slander: ).
In legal terms, Article 362 of the Greek Penal Code defines defamation () "whoever who with in any way claims or
spreads for someone else a fact that could harm that person's honor or reputation"[8], whereas slanderous defamation (
) is when the fact is a lie, and the person who claims or spreads it knows that[9]. The first case is punishable with up to 2
years imprisonment or a fine, whereas slanderous defamation is punishable with at least 3 months imprisonment and a fine.

Shift in meaning in modern English


The word "sycophant" entered the English and French languages in the mid-16th Century, and originally had the same meaning in
English and French (sycophante) as in Greek, a false accuser. Today, in Greek and French it retains the original meaning.[10]

The meaning in English has changed over time, however, and came to mean an insincere flatterer. The common thread in the older
and current meanings is that the sycophant is in both instances portrayed as a kind of parasite, speaking falsely and insincerely in the
accusation or the flattery for gain. The Greek plays often combined in one single character the elements of the parasite and the
sycophant, and the natural similarities of the two closely related types led to the shift in the meaning of the word.[11] The sycophant
in both meanings can also be viewed as two sides of the same coin: the same person currying one's favor by insincere flattery is also
spreading false tales and accusations behind one's back.[12] In Renaissance English, the word was used in both senses and meanings,
that of the Greek informer, and the current sense of a "flattering parasite", with both being cast as enemiesnot only of those they
[13]
wrong, but also of the person or state that they ostensibly serve.

References
1. MacDowell, Douglas M. (1986).The Law in Classical Athens(https://books.google.com/books?id=92_Nz8jjrSUC&pg
=PA63). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. pp. 6266. ISBN 978-0-80149365-2 via Google Books.
2. WordReference.com (http://www.wordreference.com/gren/%CF%83%CF%85%CE%BA%CE%BF%CF%86%CE%A
C%CE%BD%CF%84%CE%B7%CF%82)
3. Chisolm, Hugh, ed. (1911)."Sycophant" (https://books.google.com/books?id=axAkAQAAIAAJ&pg=P
A277).
Encyclopdia Britannica. vol. 26 (11th ed.). pp. 27677 via Google Books.
4. Henkle, W.D. (February 1873). "That is a Sycophant?"(https://books.google.com/books?id=81gcAQAAIAAJ&pg=P
A
49). The National Teacher. 3 (3): 4650 via Google Books.
5. Allen, Danielle S. (2003).The World of Prometheus: The Politics of Punishing in Democratic Athens
(https://books.g
oogle.com/books?id=lKW3yiINadEC&printsec=frontcover&dq=The+W orld+of+Prometheus:+The+Politics+of+Punishi
ng+in+Democratic+Athens&hl=en&sa=X&ei=NV1gUcOFMYKA0AGYloDgCw&ved=0CDMQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q
=sycophant&f=false). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. pp. 156164.ISBN 9780691094892 via Google
Books.
6. Apollodorus (1999). Kapparis, K.A, ed.Against Nearia (https://books.google.com/books?id=hze0Bw5tGCEC&pg=P
A
255). Berlin: Walter de Gruyter. pp. 255256. ISBN 9783110163902 via Google Books.
7. Ober, Josiah (2009). Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens(https://books.google.com/books?id=J-R6gaH61pkC&pg=
PA174). Princeton University Press. pp. 173174.ISBN 9781400820511 via Google Books.
8. (in Greek) GreeK Penal Code Article 363(http://www.c00.org/2015/03/greek-penal-code-article-363.html)
9. (in Greek) GreeK Penal Code Article 362(http://www.c00.org/2015/03/greek-penal-code-article-362.html)
10. "Sycophante" (http://www.cnrtl.fr/lexicographie/sycophante) [Sycophant] (in French). Centre National de Ressources
Textuelles et Lexicales. 2012. Retrieved 4 July 2013.
11. Lofberg, J.O. (January 1920)."The Sycophant-Parasite"(https://books.google.com/books?id=HK5JAAAA
YAAJ&pg=
PA69). Classical Philology. 15 (1): 6172 via Google Books.
12. Trench, Richard Chenevix (1903).English Past and Present(https://books.google.com/books?id=Mao3AAAA YAAJ&
pg=PA327). Revised and in part rewritten by A.L. Mayhew
. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trbner & Company.
pp. 327328 via Google Books.
13. Elizabeth I (2008). Mueller, Janel & Scodel, Joshua, eds. Elizabeth I: Translations 15921598(https://books.google.c
om/books?id=KSlwqK4N9ygC&pg=PA378). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 378.ISBN 9780226201368
via Google Books.

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