Word of the Month: Obsequious & Sycophant

David Zapatka

Friends and readers Randi and Jim Nulty write, “We enjoyed your April WOTM column. Randi once scored a triple word in Scrabble using the word ‘pismire.’ I think it was 70+points. We have never forgotten the word or its definition.” I suspect many of our readers are Scrabble players. I’ve always enjoyed that game. Thank you for your comments, Randi and Jim.

Friend and reader Jack Burke, while visiting with me at my home before the stay-at-home order was made, suggested I consider using the words “obsequious” and “sycophant” for a WOTM column. He said he found both these words interesting and that they were frequently used together. Thanks for your recommendation, Jack.

Obsequious – adjective ob·​se·​qui·​ous | əb-ˈsē-kwē-əs , äb-  marked by or exhibiting a fawning attentiveness; obedient or attentive to an excessive or servile degree.

Origin and Etymology – Middle English, compliant, from Latin obsequiosus, from obsequium compliance, from obsequi to comply, from ob- toward + sequi to follow

First Used – 1602.

Example sentences using obsequious in the news

The Democratic presidential nominee is commonly referred to as Elvis, and his running mate as Eddie Haskell, that obsequious weenie from ’50s TV. — Guy Trebay, Village Voice, 28 July 1992

Nash’s other hand flashed forward a lighter with the obsequious speed of a motor salesman. — Ian Fleming, From Russia, With Love, 1957

Sycophant – noun sy·​co·​phant | ˈsi-kə-fənt also ˈsī- & -ˌfant  a servile self-seeking flatterer

Origin and Etymology – from Latin sȳcophanta, borrowed from Greek sȳkophántēs, literally, “one who shows the fig,” from sŷkon “fig” + -phantēs, agentive derivative of phaínein “to reveal, show, make known”; perhaps from the use of such a gesture in denouncing a culprit.

First Used – 1575.

Example sentences using sycophant in the news

His Republican sycophants have eagerly joined him in casting doubt on the patriotism and honesty of FBI agents, CIA analysts, and other members of the national security apparatus. — Robert G. Kaiser, The New York Review of Books, “Fear and Loathing and the FBI,” 11 Feb. 2020

Harlan’s grown children, sycophants and weasels all, have gathered for the patriarch’s 85th birthday celebration. — Tribune News Service, Cleveland, “‘Knives Out’ review: A sleuth plays a ripping game of Clue, and a family of vipers wonders whodunit,” 27 Nov. 2019

The phrase “Yes-man” originated in the US in 1912 meaning, “A man who agrees from self-interest or fear with everything put to him by a superior.” That implies only men can be obsequious. Although “yes-woman” appeared in the early 1930s, it never caught on. Then the genderless term “sycophant” became popular. Today an obsequious sycophant is male or female, one who agrees with another through flattery, servitude, fawning, etc. in excess for personal gain or self-gratification recognized as brown-nosing.

Have you noticed any obsequious sycophants lurking in your travel spheres? Please submit your experiences, any thoughts on this month’s column, or any word you may like to share, along with your insights and comments, to [email protected].