1530s (in Latin form sycophanta), "informer, talebearer, slanderer," from Middle French sycophante and directly from Latin sycophanta, from Greek sykophantes "false accuser, slanderer," literally "one who shows the fig," from sykon "fig" (see fig) + phainein "to show" (from PIE root *bha- (1) "to shine").
"Showing the fig" was a vulgar gesture made by sticking the thumb between two fingers, a display which vaguely resembles a fig, itself symbolic of a vagina (sykon also meant "vulva"). The modern accepted explanation is that prominent politicians in ancient Greece held aloof from such inflammatory gestures, but privately urged their followers to taunt their opponents. The sense of "mean, servile flatterer" is first recorded in English 1570s.
The explanation, long current, that it orig. meant an informer against the unlawful exportation of figs cannot be substantiated. [OED]
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