Toadying and Sycophancy

Of Lordly acquaintance you boast,
And the Dukes that you dined with yestreen;
Yet an insect’s an insect at most,
Tho’ it crawl on the curl of a Queen!

Roburt Burns, The Toadeater
In the UK, those who wish to challenge the beliefs of alternative therapy have a
problem. The greatest exponent of alternative medicine is indeed our future head of state and King, Prince Charles. A little royal patronage can be a powerful thing. The Quacktioner Royal, as he has become known, has set up a lobbying organisations that specifically promotes alternative medicine for inclusion within the NHS. One would have thought that given such as situation, the scope for a bit of toadying is quite large.

For example, you can take a look at the line up of speakers at the recent Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health Conference and see such delights as Roger Daltry saying “I think the work Charles is doing is amazing, he takes it on the chin, he’s his own man.” You can look at the full line up of speakers and maybe, after careful and reflective thought, and taking into account all the evidence, you may come to the conclusion that a little sycophancy is going on.

But what wonderful words: toadying and sycophancy. Where do they come from?

One dictionary definition gives this delightful word history:

The earliest recorded sense (around 1690) of toady is “a little or young toad,” but this has nothing to do with the modern usage of the word. The modern sense has rather to do with the practice of certain quacks or charlatans who claimed that they could draw out poisons. Toads were thought to be poisonous, so these charlatans would have an attendant eat or pretend to eat a toad and then claim to extract the poison from the attendant. Since eating a toad is an unpleasant job, these attendants came to epitomize the type of person who would do anything for a superior, and toadeater (first recorded 1629) became the name for a flattering, fawning parasite. Toadeater and the verb derived from it, toadeat,influenced the sense of the noun and verb toad and the noun toady, so that both nouns could mean “sycophant” and the verb toady could mean “to act like a toady to someone.”

I am not sure if this is true. But if it is, am an appalled that such techniques for quackery promotion do not go on today. The quacks of today have lost their bottle. Who would not delight in seeing a homeopath getting their Saturday intern doing a floor demonstration in Boots the Chemist by eating a live toad and then taking some Nux Vom to ensure she does not throw up. There would be queues around the block to see that, and I would be so impressed I would buy the sugar pills. And, of course, Roger Daltry on stage eating toads in front of Prince Charles whilst singing a medley of hits from Tommy would have really hit the headlines.

The etymology of sycophant may be a little harder and require some Latin and Greek.

My own personal favourite usage of the word appears in the film “101 Dalmatians” when Glenn Close’s Cruella de Vil berates her manservant by saying “What sort of sycophant do you think you are?”. To which he replies, “What sort of sycophant would you like me to be?”

We are told that the word is derived from συκος sykos, “fig”, and φανης fanēs, “to show” so basically sycophant is someone who shows figs. Not a lot of sense there. One explanation is that,

the Greek suko-phantes, “fig-blabbers.” The men of Athens passed a law forbidding the exportation of figs; the law was little more than a dead letter, but there were always found mean fellows who, for their own private ends, impeached those who violated it; hence sycophant came to signify first a government toady, and then a toady generally.

Do we believe that? The Oxford English Dictionary disputes this explanation and instead offers that it comes from an obscene gesture of “sticking the thumb between two fingers” in the shape of a fig. We are told that “The story goes that prominent politicians in ancient Greece held aloof from such inflammatory gestures, but privately urged their followers to taunt their opponents.”

Why this is obscene may be reflected in the fact that sykon has an alternative meaning of vulva.

On that note, I think we had better leave it there.

On this theme…

17 Comments on Toadying and Sycophancy

  1. You can see a bit more detail about the assembled toadies here.

    A lot of them were the usual suspects, but there were also a few quite surprising names. Some of them do not seem to have been aware of the disreputable company they were keeping.

  2. "The greatest exponent of alternative medicine is indeed our future head of state and King, Prince Charles. A little royal patronage can be a powerful thing."
    Yes, this is sad but true. Aside from members of the British royal family: politicians, the mainstream media, celebrities and even universities have also helped to promote alternative medicine.

    Some of the above really should know better…

  3. Could it be true that Prince Charles is also a gnome-botherer?

    See ukanthroposophy.wordpress.com, (April 22nd 2009).

  4. Please read 'The Retreat of Reason' (to read in full on-line – it's an extended pamphlet) by Anthony Browne – which examines why and how the oppression of fact and scientific intellectualism has been promoted by the heinous ascendency of political correctness. It refers to alternative medicine and the dangers of not challenging emotional delusions in general which are now regarded by the political and even the police, NHS management and educational institutions as the untouchable moral high-ground! It is written on behalf of Civitas – but carries a wealth of scientific and academic supporters of all political and academic shades.
    Quote: ref Steven Dutch on anti-intellectualism
    "Our own culture supports systematic and disciplined inquiry better than just about any other in history, but even so there is a great deal of hostility toward it by people who feel their values threatened, and see it as a waste of time that could be devoted to more immediate goals or resent the status and power it carries." He reckons that the majority are only superficially curious and easily satisfied with scant evidence for their emotional value system and "cannot/will not" alter their thinking.
    We may imagine that the cult of Chiro etc. is a minority pursuit but when dealing with the majority's thought processes it is in fact the majority 'intellect', view and attitude that the alternative cult (we must stop using the word 'medicine' here) sceptics are up against – democracy anyone?! But of course the shallow politically correct will label me as patronising for invoking the Bell Curve when I am merely being politically incorrect by asking for rational, reliable, valid evidence based on integrity and facts.
    Robert Burns loathed "The Unco Guid" in his famous address and the alternative cults would fit his lampoon of the rigidly righteous – including their arch buffoon.

  5. In modern language "sycophant" is not a person, which shows a fig, and rather a person, to whom the fig is shown 😉 The point is that in my native language this geste means "you will get NOTHING" in most rude and unprintable version! 😀 Because sycophancy is a wasting of time as a rule 😛

    So, for example, all chiropractors dream about a win in Singh's case will get a fig! 🙂
    And some too impudent politicians will get NOTHING ! 😛
    And all my enemies will get zero! 😉

  6. In modern language "sycophant" is not a person, which shows a fig, and rather a person, to whom the fig is shown 😉 The point is that in my native language this geste means "you will get NOTHING" in most rude and unprintable version! 😀 Because sycophancy is a wasting of time as a rule 😛

    So, for example, all chiropractors dream about a win in Singh's case will get a fig! 🙂
    And some too impudent politicians will get NOTHING ! 😛
    And all my enemies will get zero! 😉

  7. The article complains about royal power and prestige. It is certainly implies that the country would be better off without Prince Charles and the royal family. What is avoided is how this might be made to happen.
    Is it imagined that the royal family be completely stripped of their independence of thought… Essentially turning them into glove puppets with the hands of the like of Peter Mandelson up their bottoms? Is it proposed to turf them out of Buckingham Palace and plonk them on Mandela Estate, Peckham? Or would it be imagined cheaper and simpler to line them against a wall and shoot them all?
    Please remember that the 1351 Treason Act is still on the books, even if it is all in Norman French! Admittedly the death penalty for treason was lifted in 1998 which is just as well.
    There also seems to be a lack of business sense about all this. The Royal Family, like homeopathy, may seem anachronistic but they make good economic sense when tourism is considered.

  8. Not sure what your point is Stewart. Its OK for Charles to spout off about nonsense treatments because it is good for tourism?

  9. To clarify, my point is that there is no 'solution' short of extreme republican dramas. The U.K. is a pluralist society and those with and without power are entitled to their personal opinions and foibles. Not to accept this suggests a fundamentalist / intolerant approach to organising society.
    Our current Western society is very prosperous, interesting, successful and dynamic as a result of tolerating diversity. By contrast, 'Utopian' societies inevitably end in poverty and tears. Compare North and South Korea for instance. If some of us get irritated at Prince Charles, it is a small price to pay for not living in a country run by a committee or a despot.

  10. But when Charles uses his access to the levers of power then we have a definite problem. If this country wants a hereditary head of state, then fine. But the constitutional settlement for that over the centuries has been that the Royal Family keep their noses out of politics – their role is ceremonial. So, when Charles writes to the MHRA, I would call that an abuse of privilege as his influence can be extraordinarily disproportionate – and this is what this slighty tongue in cheek post is about. His influence is quite capable or corrupting those in positions of real power.

  11. Stewart,
    It is clear that you terribly love to argue (as each good Scotchman 🙂 ). Even rather – to argufy. It seems you are a homeopath only because of the sense of contradiction 🙂
    By the way, and why are you a homeopath? You are clever and brave chap, as we see – you come here alone and daringly brandish by sword 🙂 Moreover, you love to read and know much info. Why are you busy with this nonsense – homeopathy, CAM, and other stuff? There is a lot excellent, useful crafts and businesses in the world! Do something more great and interesting. You are young still, you can start some new business and succeed in it. Eh? 😉

  12. Hmm…
    Oh, if your science in Dark Age (Medieval, probably?) then our science (Russia) are in Primitive society already 🙁 😉
    And one difference only – the russians troglodytes have own space rockets and british medieval obscurants have not them 😉

  13. Hmm…
    Oh, if your science is in Dark Age (Medieval, probably?) then our science (Russia) is in Primitive society already 🙁 😉
    And one difference only – the russians troglodytes have own space rockets and british medieval obscurants have not them 😉

  14. Hmm…
    Oh, if your science is in Dark Age (Medieval, probably?) then our science (Russia) is in Primitive society already 🙁 😉
    And one difference only – the russians troglodytes have own space rockets and british medieval obscurants have not them 😉

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