Apple-Polishers, Sycophants, and Suck-Ups

Across societies and cultures, every organization seems to have one person who is overly flattering and ingratiating. We call this person a yes-man. The boss’s pet. Ms. or Mr. Spineless.

Don’t get me wrong. We all want to please others, do a good job, get recognition for our efforts. However, most of us will not act like a doormat. We will not go overboard to get on the good side with clients or superiors. There is something called self-dignity that usually prohibits us.

However, some people are so eager to please their bosses or their customers that they will do anything to earn their approval. In American English, we call these people “brown-nosers.” A famous one in U.S. culture is the TV character, Eddie Haskell, from the 1960s sit-com “Leave It to Beaver.”

 The Cleaver Family

The Cleaver Family

 Lumpy, Eddie, and Wally

Lumpy, Eddie, and Wally

Eddie was friends with Wally Cleaver and often came over to the Cleaver house. Whenever he greeted Wally’s mom, Eddie would say something like, “My, that’s a lovely apron you’re wearing, Mrs. Cleaver.” June Cleaver, who knew a brown-noser when she saw one, would just roll her eyes. (Usually, Eddie’s flattery was simply a cover-up for some trouble he was about to instigate.)

Today, the expression for someone who insincerely compliments and fawns is a “suck-up.” My father’s generation used the expression “apple-polisher.” This comes from an earlier era when rural students used to take food (like apples) to school to give to (underpaid) teachers as a supplement to their groceries. The student who wanted to curry favor with the teacher would go to the teacher’s desk and shine up the apples—to the disgust of his/her classmates.

A generational note of caution: older Americans may disapprove of the expressions “brown-noser” or “suck-up” because of their original meanings. Both allude to the reference of “kissing someone’s ass” as a way of ingratiation. Younger generations have lost this original reference of degrading oneself and so, use it more casually.


apple-polisher = [old-fashioned] someone who ingratiates him/herself
sycophant = [formal] someone who always agrees in order to curry favor
suck-up (n.) = [slang] someone who ingratiates him/herself
to suck up to someone (vb.) = [slang] to try too hard to please someone
to ingratiate = to make others like you by doing/saying agreeable things
to fawn = to pay special attention to someone
yes-man = someone who always agrees with the boss
someone’s pet = the favored employee, student, or child
bootlicker = someone who ingratiates him/herself
brown-noser = [slang] someone who ingratiates him/herself
fawner = someone who pays special attention or gives or excessive compliments to another

Here is a related article from the Harvard Business Review blog: “Stop Being a People-Pleaser.

photos via Wikipedia

Alan Headbloom

Alan advises Americans how to be global citizens and expats how to fit in to Michigan culture without annoying their native coworkers and clients. He also tweets and blogs at the intersection of language and culture. Over decades, he's traveled, studied, or lived on six continents, putting strange foods into his mouth and emitting strange sounds from it. His use of English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swedish, Hausa, and Japanese all improve with alcohol use. He gives invited public presentations on culture and unsolicited private advice on English grammar and usage; the latter isn't always appreciated. Visit his website for information on consulting, coaching, or speaking engagements.