Kissing Ass and Living off Others II
Bill Long 2/24/08
Focusing on Parasite, Sycophant, Pickthank, Bum-sucker, and Sponge
A smell-feast tries to get into your house for a meal. Once you ingratiate yourself into someone's company and enter their home, you become a parasite. Parasite is derived from two Greek words: (1) para, which means "beside" or "alongside of" (just think that the Holy Spirit, in Christian theology, is the paraklete, the one "called beside" the Christian) and sitos, the word for "food." Thus, a parasite is originally one who frequents the tables of the rich and "sits beside" them in order to eat their food. But we must see these acquisitions by parasites not as one-way transactions. In a contract-based society like ours, a parasite may get a free meal, but he has to pay for it by obsequiousness and flattery. The first appearance of the word in English was in a 1539 translation of Erasmus' Proverbs. "It is the fascion of the flatterer and parasyte to lyve (live) of an other mans trencher." A trencher is a "flat piece of wood...on which meat was served and cut up." The phrase "to lick the trencher" came into use in the 17th century to describe someone who "toadies" or "plays the parasite." Shakespeare used the word parasite in that meal-oriented play of his, Timon of Athens: "You knot of Mouth-Friends:..Most-smiling, smooth, detested Parasites." A parasite can also be called a "trencher friend."
The OED tells us, however, that the word parasite didn't always have a negative connotation. In ancient Greece it described a priest permitted to eat meals at the public expense. From one of Plutarch's Lives: "In the first ages the name of parasite was venerable and sacred, for it properly signified one that was a messmate at the table of sacrifices." Thus, we now have three clear pictures for "kiss-ass" or obsequious behavior: (1) the parasite sidles up beside you for food; (2) the lickspittle slurps up your spit; and (3) the toady eats or simulates the eating of poisonous toads to make his employer look good.
Pickthank, Bumsucker and Sponge
There was a Mr. Pickthank in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (written in the 1670s). He was one of the three witnesses against Faithful, who had gotten himself into trouble with the secular powers. Pickthank was sworn and testified as follows:
"My lord, and you gentlemen all, this fellow I have known of a long time, and have heard him speak things that ought not to be spoken; for he hath railed on our noble prince Beelzebub, and hath spoken contemptibly of his honorable friends, whose names are, the Lord Old Man, the Lord Carnal Delight, the Lord Luxurious, the Lord Desire of Vain Glory, my old Lord Lechery, Sir Having Greedy, with all the rest of our nobility..."
Pickthank's testimony mirrored the nature of his name--he was a servile flatterer. His testimony was that Faithful spoke things that "ought not to be spoken" by railing against the secular powers that be. Pickthank, as a flatterer, believed that these secular powers should be buttered up and not spoken against.
Thus, we see that a pickthank is "an officious fellow who does what he is not asked to do, for the sake of gaining favor; a parasite; a flatterer; a toady.." (Century Dictionary, s.v). A pickthank could be this because it/he derived its name from the phrase "to pick a thank" or "to pick thanks," which meant "to procure consideration or favor by servile or underhand means" or, more briefly, to "curry favor." Thomas More used the phrase in Utopia, "He is ashamed to say that which is said already, or else to pick a thank with his prince." Holland's 1600 translation of Livy used the phrase: "I will not..pick my selfe a privat thanke for a publike benefit."
A bumsucker or bum-sucker can be explained much more simply. It is a slang word for sycophant, and was only first used by Swinburne in 1877 (according to the OED). "Mr. Bumsucker Walford (excuse the Rabelaisian term current at our universities to define a sycophant)..." Since the term "ass-kissing" or "ass-kisser" only seemed to arise in the early 1970s, the term "bumsucker" supplied the need before that time. But I will register a hesitation here. Though the OED only has "ass-kissing" coming from 1974, I distinctly remember the phrase "kiss-ass" (not in the OED) being used as early as 1968. I Well, can't solve that problem now.
To sponge can be quickly dismissed. It goes back to 1676 to describe a person who "get[s] from another in a mean or parasitic manner." Jonathan Swift could write in 1735: "I spend six hogsheads every year, which some of my Prebendaries..sponge from me at noon or evening."
No one is quite sure how this word originated. Etymologically it means "to show the fig" in Greek, but why anyone would be showing figs to anyone else is not certain. We don't know if the "fig" is an obscene gesture. The first appearance in English (in North's translation of Plutarch's Life of Solon in 1580) has this: "Wee may not altogetehr discredite those which say, they did forbid in the olde time that men should carie figges out of the countrie of Attica, and that from thence it came that these picke thankes, which bewray and accuse them that transported figges, were called Sycophantes." The OED says that this explanation of the meaning of the term "cannot be substantiated," but if it is in Plutarch, at least it is going back nearly 2000 years...
Nevertheless, it became associated in Greek history with a class of informers, tale-bearers or malicious accusers. By the 17th century it also could assume the meaning that is familiar to us: a mean, servile, cringing or abject flatterer; a parasite, toady or lickspittle. From 1843: "The young monarch was accompanied by a swarm of courtly sycophants."
Well, this takes us to the end of our journey to discover several words which take us into the servile world of flattery. Most of us have lived in that world during the course of our lives--regardless of how vehemently we deny it today. Having these words at the ready gives us pictures of life--and putting life skillfully in pictures is one of the best things you can do on a Sunday afternoon. I said one of the best things...
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long