First attested in 1537. From Latin sȳcophanta (“informer, trickster”), from Ancient Greek συκοφάντης (sukophántēs), itself from σῦκον (sûkon, “fig”) + φαίνω (phaínō, “I show, demonstrate”). The gesture of "showing the fig" was a vulgar one, which was made by sticking the thumb between two fingers, a display which vaguely resembles a fig, which is itself symbolic of a σῦκον (sûkon), which also meant vulva. The story behind this etymology is that politicians in ancient Greece steered clear of displaying that vulgar gesture, but urged their followers sub rosa to taunt their opponents by using it.But that's TMI for your fifth-grade class, and the standard definition would involve also explaining "obsequious" and "servile." So instead let's define it by example. Do you remember the Bible passage in Matthew, Chapter 7, verses 15-20?"
"Sure - that would be the "by their fruits you will know them" lesson about recognizing false prophets."
"Exactly. Now here's some "fruit" in the form of a letter written by a man to his employer. I've redacted parts of it because we're not talking politics here - just defining a word by example:
... it has been an honor to serve you... Truly, your confidence in me has blessed me personally and enabled me to advance your agenda beyond what anyone anticipated... Your courage, steadfastness and resolute commitment to get results... is in fact occurring at an unprecedented pace and I thank you for the opportunity to serve you... in helping achieve those ends.... It is extremely difficult for me to cease serving you in this role first because I count it a blessing to be serving you in any capacity, but also, because of the transformative work that is occurring...My desire in service to you has always been to bless you as you make important decisions... I believe you are serving... today because of God’s providence. I believe that same providence brought me into your service. I pray as I have served you that I have blessed you and enabled you to effectively lead... Thank you again... for the honor of serving you and I wish you Godspeed in all that you put your hand to.
Your Faithful Friend,
[redacted]"So, what do you think?"
"Ewww. Gross. And still TMI for my class. I think I'll just give them a synonym: ass-kisser, brown-nose, or suck-up should do it. Thanks, dad."