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Is there a single noun or adjective for a person who is always flattering friends and acquaintances, not only to be liked and accepted but, at other times, to curry favor with them as well ? I'm not looking for regionalisms but a word that will be understood in any English speaking country.

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I take it that you want words that are insulting? A "winning flatterer" gains favor by flattery, but isn't a single word and doesn't inherently imply that such behavior is contemptible. –  Steve Jessop Jun 15 at 2:06
    
It's interesting that most Answers list words describing one who talks up (obsequious, fawning, toady), only two list words that are neutral (unctuous, smarmy), and none mentions words for one who talks down (condescending, patronize). –  Beta Jun 15 at 12:23
    
@Beta - Don't those words usually carry the connotation that the person on the receiving end knows they are being insulted? –  Chad Miller Jun 15 at 16:56
    
@ChadMiller: No, I don't think so; if A is praising B and I say that A is being patronizing, I'm not implying that B is aware of it, just as if I say that A is being obsequious, I'm not implying that A is aware that it sounds that way. –  Beta Jun 16 at 0:32
    
I'm not sure anyone ever attempted to curry favour by talking down to their subject; it would only work if it could be depended upon that the subject would remain ignorant of having been patronised/condescended to. –  naughtilus Jul 10 at 11:42

9 Answers 9

up vote 6 down vote accepted

On Sycophancy

A non-regional term for a flatterer like you describe is a sycophant, which in my experience is often prefixed with either of two adjectives: either as a fawning sycophant or an obsequious sycophant, of which the fawning version is the more common — but perhaps less unctuous — of the two.

Compared with flatterer, sycophant is a “fancier” word, but that’s just because it comes from a classical language of antiquity (read: Latin, Greek, or as in this case, both) instead of a Germanic one.

It’s only a little fancy, though, not esoteric. Therefore sycophant would be recognized by (educated) native speakers of English the world around, as it is not a colloquialism or regionalism, nor slang.

Detail, details, details

But the plot thickens: it turns out that sycophant is one of those words that we don’t necessarily understand the ultimate origin of.

True, we know that it came from Latin sȳcophanta, a masculine noun of the first declension. Its Latin origin explains why it also appears in all the Romance tongues, like sycophante in French and sicofanta in Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan, and Italian, where it retains its original gender throughout.

The Romans in turn were just transliterating Latin’s sȳcophanta from the Greek σῡκοφάντης. Indeed, the word’s first appearance in English was from a translation of Plutarch, and there it was clearly transliterating from the Greek, since it was there spelled Sycophantes even in the translation.

But beyond that, things get murky, since the Greek means “someone who shows figs”, so a “shower of figs” or a “fig-shower” if you would.

But what in the world is a fig-shower, though? The OED2 notes:

The origin of the Gr. word, lit. = ‘fig-shower’, has not been satisfactorily accounted for. The explanation, long current, that it orig. meant an informer against the unlawful exportation of figs cannot be substantiated. It is possible that the term referred orig. to the gesture of ‘making a fig’ or had an obscene implication: cf. fig sb.² (See Boisacq Dict. Étym. de la langue grecque.)

The crowd-sourced Wiktionary in contrast pulls no punches regarding the putative obscene origin of the word:

First attested in 1537. From Latin sȳcophanta (“informer, trickster”), from Ancient Greek συκοφάντης (sukophántēs), itself from σῦκον (sûkon, “fig”) + φαίνω (phaínō, “I show, demonstrate”). The gesture of “showing the fig” was a vulgar one, which was made by sticking the thumb between two fingers, a display which vaguely resembles a fig, which is itself symbolic of a σῦκον (sûkon), which also meant vulva. The story behind this etymology is that politicians in ancient Greece steered clear of displaying that vulgar gesture, but urged their followers sub rosa to taunt their opponents by using it.

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+1 for etymology. –  Luis Jun 15 at 0:37

Obsequious and servile. Two very similar expressions which convey the idea of person's facile compliments and willingness to please are dictated by a hidden agenda. Very often the flatterer is only interested in climbing the social ladder.

Obsequious: attempting to win favor from influential people by flattery
Servile: having or showing an excessive willingness to serve or please others.

Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen is the exemplary figure of an obsequious servile man, influenced as he is by one's position in high society and wealth.

A fortunate chance had recommended him [Mr. Collins] to Lady Catherine de Bourgh when the living of Hunsford was vacant; and the respect which he felt for her high rank, and his veneration for her as his patroness, mingling with a very good opinion of himself, of his authority as a clergyman, and his rights as a rector, made him altogether a mixture of pride and obsequiousness, self-importance and humility.”

Today's equivalent of a servile flatterer would be a yes-man, a person (usually a man) who agrees with everything said by his employer/supervisor/superior enthusiastically and uncritically without ever expressing his sincere opinion.

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+1 for obsequious. Precisely the word that came to my mind when I read the title of the question. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 14 at 19:38
    
@JanusBahsJacquet And for me, the word obsequious always triggers the word sycophant to immediately follow it. Fawning is shorter, though. :) –  tchrist Jun 14 at 23:38
    
@tchrist Thank you! I knew I had a word beginning with s that I couldn't think of. Sycophant was what I was originally looking for, but it got merged with obsequious until I started thinking subsequious was a word. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 14 at 23:47
    
@JanusBahsJacquet Try thinking σῡκοφάντης not ἑγκωμιαστής — and then try to figure how what the fig they’re talking about! :) –  tchrist Jun 14 at 23:51
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@Luis er... yes! Very. And it's an expression I've not familiar with. –  Mari-Lou A Jun 22 at 19:42

Consider apple-polisher.

apple-polish: to attempt to ingratiate oneself : toady

Thus, they can be an ingratiator as well.

apple-polish: to curry favor with someone, especially in an obsequious or flattering manner.

Here is an explanation behind the word: (you can read further from the source)

Apple polishing has a number of synonyms, which include brown-nosing, false flattering, and toadying. In all cases, the idea comes from apples given to teachers at school in order to curry favor. It can be a mute appeal in the form of a gift to like and therefore grade a student better. Alternately, in speech, especially where someone wants to argue a point, it can be used as an appeal to flattery and emotion, and therefore considered a logical fallacy.

From etymonline:

Apple-polisher "one who curries favor" first attested 1928 in student slang.


goody-goody can fit also:

affectedly or ingratiatingly good or proper


There are other words that can be used depending on the context:

  • lickspittle: a person who behaves obsequiously to those in power.
  • adulator: one who lavishes excessive praises or flattery, one who adulates.
  • truckler: someone who humbles himself as a sign of respect; who behaves as if he had no self-respect
  • fawner: a person who flatters another in order to get ahead
  • ass-kisser (ass-licker): a flatterer; an apple polisher; someone who would do absolutely anything to please someone. (Rude and derogatory.)
  • groveller (groveler): a person who is too ready to act obsequiously
  • crawler: a person who tries to please someone in order to gain a personal advantage
  • sycophant: a servile self-seeker who attempts to win favor by flattering influential people.
  • toady: a person who flatters or defers to others for self-serving reasons; a sycophant.
  • bootlicker: an obsequious or overly deferential person; a toady:
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Currying favor is directly related with apple-polishing. All other related words and adjectives are in the details as well. Thanks. –  ermanen Jun 15 at 14:10
    
The only common word I forgot to mention was smarmy. Someone else gave it as an answer. Someone could just remind me and I would add it. I believe it would be better to have a complete answer. –  ermanen Jun 15 at 17:14

Smarmy: revealing or marked by a smug, ingratiating or false earnestness

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This is the most commonly used version of this word. It's when charm is seen as being false or fake. –  JFA Jun 15 at 17:08

I can think of several, all differently appropriate based on the formality of the setting, from kowtower or lackey, to kiss-ass or brownnoser.

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Per meta.english.stackexchange.com/a/364 for the use–mention distinction, please use an italic face not a bold one. It makes the page look too heavy otherwise, and furthermore runs counter to typographic convention both on this site and in scholarly works. –  tchrist Jun 14 at 23:30

Unctuous

—used to describe someone who speaks and behaves in a way that is meant to seem friendly and polite but that is unpleasant because it is obviously not sincere

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Panderer. A panderer caters to what other people want in a crass way. This word is not a compliment. If someone in class calls you a panderer, maybe stop bringing the teacher apples every day. A panderer is someone who tries to please others, not to help them but for an ulterior motive. A panderer kisses up to get something. A panderer is sometimes vulgar. Politicians are often panderers, especially the ones who say or do anything to get a vote or raise money. Pandering is dishonest because the panderer says what they think others want to hear, not what they really believe.

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kiss-up:

(colloquial) One who flatters a supervisor, or superior, in order to get special attention
Joe got that promotion because he was a kiss-up, not because he knew the job.

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An inveigler

Inveigle to entice, lure, or ensnare by flattery or artful talk or inducements (usually followed by into): to inveigle a person into playing bridge.

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Good word but it lacks the specified connotation of wishing to curry favour; taken on its own, it is intention-agnostic. –  naughtilus Jul 10 at 11:38

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