, Newburyport, MA


June 10, 2013

Philanderers and philolexics


The great world is, I am afraid, full of “sycophants,” a fancy word for an unattractive sort of person. It’s a synonym for “toady” or “yes-man” or “bootlicker” or “servile flatterer” or “parasite,” among some other even less attractive terms. Since it is a relatively uncommon three-syllable word, one can get away with using it when the others would be too readily understood. It comes from the Greek sycos, fig, and phanein, to show, The sycophant is therefore “one who shows figs.” In the prudish Victorian days, an etymology for this word was invented to show how proper it was, but all the evidence points to its being derived not from a fruit but from an obscene gesture, the “fig.” In the Old Days, Greek politicians would not use this themselves, but would encourage their followers to harass the opposition with the gestures — hence the politicians’ toadies would be “fig-showers.”

Lesbos is a small Greek island where, I had supposed, the women were for some reason all attracted to each other rather than to the men, but of course, these women have the same sexual proclivities as women anywhere else. The explanation is that the most noteworthy person ever to come from Lesbos was the poetess Sappho, whose works explicitly represented erotic love between women, and while there is a word “Sapphic,” her fame and proclivities came to include the whole island — ergo, “Lesbian.”

So now, when you hear these terms being bandied carelessly about, you can reflect upon their curious origin or evolution, as does


Jonathan Wells lives in Newbury.

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