|Belgian Revolution, by Gustave Wappers|
I was watching the Rachel Maddow show a couple of nights ago and she used the word 'foment' to describe some trouble the Republicans were threatening to stir up in congress. I know roughly what foment means--it does mean to stir things up or catalyze some action. But am I the only one who always hears the foam in foment, even though it can have nothing to do with foaming? I have thought a bit about the word, but I can't figure out the root. It would actually be weird if it was foam. Well, let's find out.
No, no foam. Foment means to encourage the growth of, to instigate or stimulate. But it comes from an earlier more precise meaning of 'to apply hot liquids'. The Old French was fomenter, to apply a hot compress, and comes out of the Latin fomentum, a warm application or poultice. It is actually a contraction of fovimentum, which is probably neither here nor there to you, but the longer word makes it more easy to see that it's rooted in fovere 'to warm, cherish, encourage', and connects it to our word fever.
Interestingly, although I did find someone else curious about the foam in foment, more people actually confuse it with 'ferment'. This seems to be because the words have similar sounds and different meanings that can be used somewhat interchangably in certain settings. Here's a good post about this. I would agree with one of the commenters that foment has more immediate and ferment more long term resonances. Fermenting trouble seems more like 'brewing up trouble'. But as the post points out, the two words have probably been linked from the beginning, as foment comes from the aforementioned fovere, 'to heat', and ferment goes back to fervere, 'to boil'.
Another comment on the above mentioned blog mentions an entirely apropos scene from The Office. Wish I could YouTube it for you, but I am apparently not that adept. So here's the dialogue as provided by someone named Pete:
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.”