Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Foment or ferment?

Yesterday, I was accused by commenters of using the wrong word in a post title.

The word is "foment", not ferment:  
Instigate or stir up (an undesirable or violent sentiment or course of action): "they accused him of fomenting political unrest". 

You mean "foments" not "ferments"
For the love of Mike, please change the title.

Sorry, children, but my usage was perfectly correct. See more after the jump

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, whilefermentum derived from fervere, to boil.
So, while it is more common to “foment” trouble, it is also perfectly acceptable to “ferment” it.
And from
2. As verbs, ferment and foment are often confused because they are pronounced approximately the same way and their uses overlap in their figurative meanings. To ferment means literally 'to effervesce or cause to effervesce' (from Latin fervēre meaning 'to boil') and figuratively 'to excite or become excited'; and so it can be transitive (with an object) or intransitive: you can ferment trouble or trouble can fermentFoment means literally 'to bathe with warm or medicated liquid' (from Latin fomentum meaning 'poultice') and figuratively 'to instigate or stir up' (especially trouble). Foment is only transitive: you can foment trouble but trouble cannot foment. Examples:
Gladstone's complaint in 1874 that the opposition fomented by the Daily News had been 'one main cause' of the weakness of his late government was, of course, a simplism—Times Literary Supplement, 1977
He hosted the meetings where the rebellion was fomented which ousted Mrs Thatcher from power—Today, 1992
What are the TUC on about? Why are they fermenting trouble at this of all moments?—People, 2002
They funded courses in car mechanics and carpentry as a chance to own a business for unemployed young men whose frustration was fermenting dangerously—Sunday Times, 2007

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