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: brownnoser, lickspittle, 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. 😉