Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Sycophant: A Joyful Verbal Memory

Picture the scene – a small town market, where dealers are trying (as they would have it) to make a reasonably honest living, only to be plagued by a snooper from the council, professing to be on the hunt for contraband but probably hell bent on a mission to make their lives a misery. Along comes a trader from a far flung outpost, offering unique items to one of the locals but only in return for something equally rare and special. The quick thinking local comes up with an idea – what could be more rare and special than a council snooper? Amid scenes of high farce, the outraged snooper is seized, packed in straw and carried off home by the outside trader, and everyone goes off for a celebration.

No, it’s not a new Peter Kay spoof or Ricky Gervais satire. It’s a subplot from “The Acharnians”, a play by the Greek comedian Aristophanes written in 425 BC, the winner of first prize at the Lenaia festival. Well, fancy that.

So what sparked off memories of ancient Greek comedies? The Eurozone farce? No, that’s another piece of Aristophanes, namely Nephelococcygia (or Cloud Cuckoo Land, in plain English). The explanation lies in the Ancient Greek term for the snooper, or informer, in the original – namely, “sucophantes”, the singular noun that gave us our modern day term “sycophant”, which has transformed from its original derivation to mean an ingratiating creep, a boot licker, a servile flatterer.

So when the editing round for Hatred, Ridicule & Contempt led my wife to suggest that the description “all singing, all dancing” in a late section could effectively be completed with the word “sycophants”, I was only too pleased to concur. Not only for the classical memories, but also because, in marked contrast with the free thinkers and mavericks, it neatly embraced both the ancient and modern meanings. How? That would be telling…

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