Just emailing

Hello Andrew,

This is one of the Linguistics 100 students just emailing you to say thank you for the lecture today about sociolinguistics. This is one of the topics that I have always wanted to learn more about since I transferred to Cal last semester and I am glad to have had an in depth presentation on it. This is one of the fields of study for linguistics that I want to pursue in graduate school, and I felt glad to have been reassured that this is something that I want to do so thank you again Andrew and have a good weekend!


This made me smile. That is all!


Word of the Day: Oof, I can’t decide which to choose among some amazing candidates: brownnoserlickspittle, or sycophant! All of them mean the same thing: namely, a person who flatters and does other abject things in order to curry favor among their superiors. The first two are clearly slang, falling in rank among a rather amazing array of similarly vulgar compound words: bootlicker, asskisser, suck-up, etc. What really tickles me about these in particular, though, is the way words of different classes were combined. In the first, an adjective (‘brown’) combines with a noun (‘nose’) to create a rare type of compound verb (‘to brownnose’, cf. ‘blacklist’ or ‘greenlight’). The second is a noun created from a verb (‘lick’) and its object noun (‘spittle’), which is also fairly uncommon (cf. ‘do-gooder’ and ‘scofflaw’, versus ‘homewrecker’, ‘backbiter’, and ‘ladykiller’).

But the etymology of sycophant is by far the most interesting, originating in Greek: sykon (σῦκον) ‘fig’ + phainein (ϕαίνειν) ‘to show’. A sycophant is ‘one who shows the fig’, which refers to a rude hand gesture that resembles, to me, the sign for the letter T in American Sign Language. Why is the fig a rude hand gesture? Well, to the ancient Greeks, it also resembled a certain part of the female genitalia. The semantic leap from ‘one who shows the fig because he has no class’ to ‘one who behaves obsequiously’ is less clear; apparently the leaders of the polis always refrained from such acts but secretly urged their followers to do so. If a young groupie engaged in this sort of slander but only at their assemblyman’s behest, they could be considered a sycophant. Interesting, isn’t it?

I should note that the reason these words have come up is that when I read the email from above to my roommate, he smirked and called my student a suck-up. My response was: well, I disagree, but regardless — syocophantism or not, it still made my day. And if that makes me shallow, you can go eat some figs. 😉


About Andrew C.

I'm a grad student at UC Berkeley.
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One Response to Just emailing

  1. Alice says:



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