Ferment and Foment

By Simon Kewin

Is “foment” the same as “ferment”?

People stirring up discord are often described as “fomenting trouble”. If you search for the phrase on the Internet you’ll find, for instance, Indian agents fomenting trouble in Canada and the Russian Kremlin fomenting trouble in Belarus, to pick just two recent examples.

But quite often, the phrase used in this situation is “fermenting” rather than “fomenting” trouble. This is a less common phrase, but there are still plenty of instances to be found, all over the world, of people fermenting trouble.

Are both phrases correct or do people write “ferment” when they should say “foment”?

The Oxford dictionary’s definition of foment as a transitive verb is :

instigate or stir up (an undesirable or violent sentiment or course of action)

as in for example :

they accused him of fomenting political unrest

The word derives from the Latin word fomentum, meaning a poultice or a lotion. Originally, to foment was to bathe a part of the body with a warm or a medicated lotion.

Ferment as a transitive verb, meanwhile, means :

incite or stir up (trouble or disorder)

as in for example :

the politicians and warlords who are fermenting this chaos

This word derives from the Latin word fermentum meaning yeast.

As you can see, both foment and ferment have ended up meaning more or less the same thing in this context, despite their different derivations. Perhaps this is because they sound so similar or it might be because they share that sense of heat. Fomentum itself derived from the Latin verb fovere to heat, while fermentum derived from fervere, to boil.

So, while it is more common to “foment” trouble, it is also perfectly acceptable to “ferment” it.

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11 Responses to “Ferment and Foment”

  • ApK

    I have suspicion that most contemporary uses of “ferment” in place of “foment” is due to simple ignorance. It’s just a suspicion, and I can see the logic using either word. I’ll have to go to my OED to see if it lists historical citations for using “ferment” in this way by people who you’d think would know what they were talking about….maybe I’m being needlessly cynical, but most people in my personal experience who used ‘ferment’ this way were misquoting someone else’s use of ‘foment.’

  • sparky11

    My 12 y/o daughter, bless her heart, explains the difference this way: ‘Ferment’ means that it is ferm. ‘Foment’ (foament?) means that it is soft.

  • Kathryn

    While my instinctive reaction is similar to ApK’s, I think it is fascinating that, of the two words, ferment is the one that makes more sense as a metaphor for stirring up or inciting something.

  • Frank Elliott

    The OED undoubtedly has the historical useage correct, but I’m not convinced that in modern usage that foment and ferment are interchangeable. Ferment carries with it conotation that something that takes some time to develop, whereas foment carries no such time element.

  • Maeve

    I’m with ApK on this one. When it comes to rebellion and unrest, I expect them to be fomented. 🙂

  • Simon Kewin

    I’m with Apk too, really – and I always assumed that ferment used in this way was simply wrong. But, looking into it, it became clear that ferment could be used. I still prefer foment too, though!

  • Steven Bailey

    Today, China used the word foment to describe America’s involvement, if any, in the Jasmine Revolution. But, it could be argued, by using the word ferment, that there are has been one revolution fermenting since Western countries have been allowed back into China. One of more recent is China’s own sexual revolution.

  • Pete

    The latest episode of “The Office” used the phrase “foment insurrection.” Because I couldn’t recall every hearing the word “foment,” for I believed “ferment” to have been the proper term, I Googled the terms and found this page.

    Dwight – So I expect you to be on your best behavior, which means none of you will be insubordinate nor will you foment insurrection.

    Jim – Question. If we’ve already fomented insurrection, may we be grandfathered in?

    Dwight – Define “foment.”

    Jim – You define “foment.”

    [awkward silence]

    I thought it was hilarious, thought I’d share that with you.

  • Abumoye Elijah

    I think “foment” should be readily defined as “to be driven to ferment discord/rebellion/trouble”. If we’re talkin about the aura surrounding a particular place to make one do wrong things, FOMENT will be the right word. But if you serve as a starting point to touble in a place, then we use FERMENT.

  • Abumoye Elijah

    “Foment” should be readily defined as “to be driven to ferment discord/rebellion/trouble”. If we’re talkin about the aura surrounding a particular place to make one do wrong things, FOMENT will be the right word. But if you serve as a starting point to touble in a place, then we use FERMENT.

  • Bryan

    Weird… I was looking for an exact definition of this word and I came up with this forum. I used “foment” in a paper recently not knowing its exact definition. I sometimes use words I don’t actually understand, but they seem right when I write them, and over experience my initial usage tends to be right…ish… more or less. I believe I’m right in my usage here (quoted below). But I would say that my use of words is not hard and fast. Rather, in this case, it extrapolates from the denotation along the lines of the original latin “fomentum,” i.e. I’m using it as a noun and not a transitive verb. I haven’t exactly kept track of instances where I’ve heard this used similarly, and I don’t even have full access to the OED’s history of usage right now, but it seems like I’ve heard it with this usage before, which is why I use it this way. This is the exact quote from my paper:
    “The larger question for the Party, then, is to what extent and by what mechanisms the central authority can liberalize its economic systems while maintaining its own political dominance in a foment of decentralized actors?”
    Even if this isn’t common, I think it’s right… or at the least it should be.

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