I'm trying to see if there's a noun for a type of person that exemplifies a sycophant, and particular if there's a good example of such a person from history.

In Lord of The Rings, Gruma Wormtongue could be described as a sycophant (amongst many other things). Is there anyone from history that might fit this mold, and as a bonus, is there another name to refer to such people (instead of just a sycophant)?

Much like we refer to Icarus to describe a person with over-ambition.

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    Since the meaning of sycophant has changed over time and varies between cultures, you may find that historical examples of proclaimed sycophants don't fit your intended archetype.
    – Steve Bird
    Feb 25, 2016 at 12:38
  • I hadn't considered that. Thank you! I'll see if I can't clarify it further.
    – Alex
    Feb 25, 2016 at 12:42
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    The name I will really say is a traitor, a worse level than a sycophant, but you often find it in combination with "sycophants". Quisling, from Vidkun Quisling, the Norwegian pro-Nazi leader, became synonymous with a traitor. Feb 25, 2016 at 13:45
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    @C.M.Weimer indeed, hence why I phrased it "much like".
    – Alex
    Feb 26, 2016 at 13:08
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    @Piers Gaveston no, Rasputin does not fit as he held power. What I'm looking for is someone who is subserviant or similarly "lesser" than the person they're fawning to. Thank you though.
    – Alex
    Feb 26, 2016 at 13:10

4 Answers 4


You're looking for the term quisling, which is an adjective to describe someone (or a government or group of people) being a toady, particularly with respect to someone they should be standing up to. The term comes from Vidkun Quisling, who ran the Norwegian government during WWII. When the Nazis invaded, he actually helped them take over the country, and as a reward got to run it for them for a while. Churchill responded by making the man's name a byword for treason.

A vile race of Quislings—to use a new word which will carry the scorn of mankind down the centuries—is hired to fawn upon the conqueror, to collaborate in his designs and to enforce his rule upon their fellow countrymen while grovelling low themselves.

It seems most likely that Wormtounge was in fact modeled upon Quisling. In fact, you'd have to invest some work to convince me otherwise. The Lord of the Rings was written from 1937-1941 just as all this was happening, and we know Tolkien was using the term himself in 1939 (before even Churchill).

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    "Quisling" is about being a traitor, not a sycophant.
    – D J Sims
    Feb 26, 2016 at 10:34
  • Yup. Quisling is used to refer to traitors not sycophants. A sycophant may or may not be a Quisling. like some Politician sucking up to ruler of his nation. That politician will be a sycophant, not a quisling
    – NSNoob
    Feb 26, 2016 at 11:05
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    @Mustang - I'm sorry, but these two comments are just not correct. Its about being both. The quote I included makes this quite clear. More to the point, as the text mentioned, I believe it is the equivalent of his example character Wormtongue by design. Wormtongue was both as well.
    – T.E.D.
    Feb 26, 2016 at 11:39
  • Great insight. Thank you. I agree that your quote confirms both aspects of a person the term I was looking for requires: fawning in particular (which a sycophant expresses).
    – Alex
    Feb 26, 2016 at 13:07
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    The Tolkien Society has an article title "Tolkien and Quisling"; they conclude that the term "quisling" only appears in the 1947 published version of the talk. Jun 23, 2016 at 10:15

In Dante's Inferno, the eigth circle of hell is for insincerity, which includes politicians. The second pit in particular includes the prostitute Thais from classical mythology, who falsely aggrandized her lover. But these aren't real people.

I think that the lack of historical figures displaying sycophantic tendencies shows either the ineffectiveness of this tactic, or conversely, its extreme prevalence and lack of notability.


One of Adolf Hitler's closest aides, General Wilhelm Keitel was aptly nicknamed "Lakeitel" (German for lackey) for his toadying ways.


Rudolf Hess is the best example I can think of. He transcribed all of Hitler's lunacy and embarrassed Hitler himself with his over the top introductions and constant haranguing of "dark forces working against us." He was an interesting character study...lived longer than any of the other True Believers. That does imply a certain form of wisdom actually...something the tens of millions who died for and fighting against "Hitlerism" simply failed to grasp.

I'm not a big fan of Livy either...he re-wrote most of Polybius's History on the Punic Wars from a very biased Roman point of view 200 years later. It is interesting to view the two Histories side by side.

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