A Figment of Etymology
A moist, cleft, ripe fig, dehiscent and juicy, has suggested a receptive vagina to speakers of dozens of unrelated languages for more than 4,000 years. Misandrous crones, black-leathered feministas, gorgons, harpies and assorted harridans, contemplating this sexist truth and thus bent double in paroxysms of man-hatred, may now swoon backwards onto their Naugahyde settees. Nevertheless, our title photograph suggests how apposite a metaphor this fig-muff iconic meme was and is. From the ancient Phoenician pagh ‘half-ripe fig, vulva’ to Attic Greek playwright Aristophanes σῦκον ‘fig’ or ‘twat’ to popular Latin fica ‘fig’ or ‘vulva’ to modern Italian’s fare la fica, the comparison has endured.
The word fig first came into English early in the 13th century, brought by the Norman conquerors as Old French figue, itself from Vulgar Latin fica, from Latin ficus. The classical Latin word is still the proper botanical genus name of fig trees. Consider the common fig tree of horticulture, Ficus benjamina. The Latin is akin to Greek sykon ‘fig,’ Armenian t'uz ‘fig’, and Phoenician pagh ‘half-ripe fig.’
The Fig Gesture
The fig gesture is known throughout the West and Middle East. It represents the vulva, with the thumb-tip playing the part of the clitoris. To some ancient ethnic groups who had trouble with feminine symbolism, clouded as their apprehension was by obscuring floods of violent machismo, the thumb through the fingers could only represent the stout and sturdy penis circumvolved by its labial wreath during an act of intromission. Yawn.
Just how did it become an insult? Many are the theories, some preposterous, some appealing to reason. To display the fig gesture to a man, in the many days that preceded feminism, was to suggest that the man to whom the gesture was directed was a weakling, a wimpy wittol, a homosexual, or — O worse than hell itself! — a pussy.
A similar origin lies behind the word sycophant, a Greek word, still used in English to mean a base, vile, degraded, cringing, lickspittle toady, a low flatterer of princes and great men, one who will demean and abase himself to curry favour with the mighty and powerful.
The workaday motto of all sycophants is: I live to grovel.
The Greek meaning of sycophant is ‘one who shows the fig,’ from σῦκοφάντης = σῦκον sykon Greek ‘fig’ + phantes Greek ‘shower, displayer.’ In Attic Greek, sykophantes meant an informer, a fig-informer. Some sources claim the origin denotes one who informed against persons illegally exporting figs from Attica!!! There is not one iota of ancient authority for such silly literalism — but the unLatined and the never-Greeked ought to remember that a college classics department is never the brain center of a university. That fig-exporting explanation was thought up by Victorian classical scholars one rainy afternoon in the Bodleian and is utter fancy, devoid of evidence, whereas the sexual meaning that I give below has classical citations galore to support it.
One of the preposterous, no-known-proof origin stories of sycophant or fig-shower is given below, merely for interest. My theory follows the silly one.
The Silly Sycophant Origin Story
Sycophant is said by some to have originated during the Middle Ages, when certain prisoners from a captured city, often said to be Milano in Italy, were offered their lives, if they humiliated themselves by eating a fig from a donkey’s anus. Then they ‘showed the fig’ in their lips to their captors and, as sycophants, were spared the beheading sword. This nifty folk etymology overlooks the stark fact that the word appeared in ancient Greek 1,000 years earlier.
The Theory I Find Most Cogent
What is going on in the metaphor contained in the word sycophant is quite simple and clear, once the maidenly blush of the repressed school marm has been asked to tiptoe out into the hallway so that her maidenly modesty may not be abused and so that the adults among us can carry on a civilized conversation about etymology.
I don’t give a fig if your delicate feelings are bruised by my crudity.
Fig and sykon meant female and male genitalia, but mostly female. If you bent over to be sodomized, you showed your anus or your vulva as you bent forward to be screwed from behind doggy-style. Such a gesture by either sex indicated low status and just HOW servile you were prepared to be, namely that you would plumb the depths of sycophancy to gain favour. You would ‘show your fig’ or be a sycophant.
The fig gesture has many other meanings like good luck and fertility. It is also the gestural equivalent of ‘screw you!’ in countries like Greece, Indonesia, Turkey, Cyprus and Russia.
In some regions of Bosnia, Serbia, or Croatia, the “fig” sign is addressed as the šipak or figa and it is a comical, not an angry or aggressive way, of answering a question to mean ‘nothing.’
A web page on the obscenity fare la fica contains some ancient quotations and also speculations I do not agree with. It is nonetheless of interest.
Fig-uratively speaking, my fellow pilgrims on wisdom’s stone-strewn pathway, we have reached the end of the trail for this outing. I do trust I have not blotched the lily chastity of innocence. The mere suggestion of sodomy has always been offensive. But there is seldom any mention of the horror of gomorrahmy.
© 2012 William Gordon Casselman
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