Words for Subservient People and Actions

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One of the most unforgettable characters in literature is Uriah Heep in the novel David Copperfield by Charles Dickens.

Heep works as clerk to Miss Trotwood’s lawyer, Mr. Wickfield. Because Wickfield is often incapacitated by alcoholism, Heep is able to cheat him out of his wealth. Heep’s most memorable and repellent characteristic is his frequently avowed “humility.” He constantly refers to himself as “a very ‘umble person,” telling David

I am well aware that I am the umblest person going…My mother is likewise a very umble person. We live in a numble abode, Master Copperfield, but have much to be thankful for. My father’s former calling was umble. He was a sexton.”

Heep is the stereotypical toady, a person who bows and scrapes his way among his superiors, plotting his own ends behind an obsequious exterior. Here are some words for writing about such characters.

toady [tō’dē] – “a fawning flatterer” The word is thought to be a shortening of toad-eater” a term that referred to the assistant of a travelling salesman who sold fraudulent miracle cures. The assistant would eat a toad that was supposed to be poisonous. The salesman then gave him the “cure.” Toady can also be used as a verb. Why do you toady to your boss like that?

sycophant [sĭk’ə-fənt] – This word is commonly used to refer to someone who flatters people in power. As soon as Jones lost the election, those sycophants fled to the side of his opponent. NOTE: The word sycophant is often mispronounced by inserting an “n” after the “y.” The adjective is sycophantic

apple-polisher [ăpl pŏl’ĭsh ər] – In the old days, teachers were often paid their salaries in kind, that is, with produce or other necessities. Taking an apple to the teacher was a good thing. Now “taking an apple to the teacher” is seen as an attempt to gain favoritism. Polishing the apple signifies an extra effort to gain favor.

lickspittle [lĭk’spĭt’l]- You may come across this word in old books. The idea is that the sycophant is so eager to please that he’ll even lick up his master’s spit.

bootlick [būt’lĭk’] – One who licks his master’s boots.

ass-kisser [ăs’ kĭs’ ər]- Same idea as booklick.

brown-nose [broun’ nōz’] – (side effect of kissing a posterior) Can also be used as a verb. Harold is a brown-nose. He brown-noses all his professors.

doormat [dôr’măt’] – a person who allows other people to walk all over her.

kowtow [kou-tou’, kou’tou’] – “to abase oneself before another.” The word is from a Chinese word meaning “to bump the head.” The proper way to present oneself to the Emperor was to kowtow, that is, get down and bump your head on the floor before the throne. That rock star expects all his band members to kowtow to him
truckle [trŭk’əl] – behave in a servile, obedient manner to someone. The word derives from “truckle bed.” A truckle bed is a small bed that rolls out from underneath a larger one. When travelling, an aristocrat would sleep on the big bed and his servant on the truckle bed. If two equals travelled together, they’d probably argue or flip a coin over which one slept on the truckle bed. She truckles to his every whim.

fawning [fô’nĭng] – The word comes from the verb to fawn, meaning “behave like an animal happy to see its master.” I can’t stand watching you fawn all over her!

obsequious [ŏb-sē’kwē-əs] – exhibiting a demeaning, servile behavor. Fraternity pledges survive by obsequious behavior to the members.

servile [sûr’vīl’] – from the word for slave. In a slave society, self-confidence and self-respect are not traits desirable in one’s human property. Servile means “acting like a slave,” i.e., staying out of the way, not calling attention to oneself, jumping when the master snaps his fingers.

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4 thoughts on “Words for Subservient People and Actions”

  1. im no feminist but I think you should go him or her.

    “doormat [dôr’măt’] – a person who allows other people to walk all over her.”

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