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apple-polisher A sycophant or toady; an ingratiating flatterer. This informal U.S. term stems from the schoolboy practice of bringing an apple to the teacher, supposedly to compensate for ill-prepared lessons. It has been in common student use since 1925 and has given us the now equally common verb phrases apple-polish and polish or shine up the apple, both meaning to curry favor with one’s superiors.
ass kisser A fawning flatterer, especially one who is two-faced—submissively deferential to superiors in their presence but boldly badmouthing them in their absence. The once taboo, self-explanatory term has gained general currency in spoken usage where it is rapidly losing its literal associations. It has yet to become an acceptable word in the written language, however.
bootlick A self-explanatory but stronger term for an apple-polisher or toady. The phrase to lick [someone’s] boots or shoes has the same connotation of abject servility and devotion.
brown-nose A fawning flatterer, an obsequious sycophant. The term is more strongly derogatory than apple-polisher, and was once considered vulgar owing to its derivation from the image of the ass kisser. Frequent use has rendered the term innocuous, though still insulting. Its corresponding verb form means to curry favor.
curry favor To seek to ingratiate one-self with one’s superiors by flattery or servile demeanor. The original term to curry Favel, in use until the early 17 th century, derived from a 14th-century French satirical romance in which the cunning, duplicitous centaur Fauvel granted favors to those who curried, or rubbed down, his coat. The natural English transition to favor appeared as early as 1510, and after a century of coexistence, totally replaced the earlier favel.
dance attendance on To be totally servile to another; to wait upon obsequiously. This expression originated from an ancient tradition that required a bride to dance with all the guests at her wedding. The phrase, found in literature dating from the 1500s, appears in its figurative sense in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII (1613):
A man of his place, and so near our favour,
To dance attendance on our lordship’s pleasure. (V, ii)
lickspittle The most servile of sycophants, the basest of groveling, parasitic toadies. An early use underscores the self-evident origin of the term:
Gib, Lick her spittle From the ground. (Sir William Davenant, Albovine, 1629)
make fair weather To conciliate or flatter by behaving in an overly friendly manner; to ingratiate one-self with a superior by representing things in a falsely optimistic light. Shakespeare used this expression in Henry VI, Part II; however, it goes back even earlier to the turn of the 15th century.
But I must make fair weather yet awhile,
Till Henry be more weak, and I more strong. (V, i)
toad-eater A servile and obsequious attendant or follower; one who will go to any lengths to comply with a superior’s wishes; a toady (whence the term) or sycophant. According to the OED, the original toad-eaters were charlatans’ assistants who ate, or pretended to eat, poisonous toads, thus providing their mountebank masters with the opportunity to display their curative powers by expelling the deadly toxin.
tuft-hunter A self-seeking flatterer, particularly of the prestigious and powerful; one who attempts to enhance his own status by consorting with those of higher station. Formerly, titled undergraduates at Oxford and Cambridge were, in university parlance, called tufts, after the tuft or gold tassel worn on their mortarboards as an indication of their rank. Those of lesser standing who sought their attentions and company thus came to be known as tuft-hunters.