Friday, November 30, 2012


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.”

[awkward silence]

Thanks, Pete.



  1. I've ALWAYS thought it was to do with foam, because I think I often hear it in context with the Ocean. Like "The waves fomented and the ship went down."


  2. Well, it's easy to see why, based on the foam related blog post I posted to here. He or she says that foam is a product of air being infused into a liquid, causing it to expand in volume. And foment, no longer at the hot poultices stage, means to grow something or expand something. To cause it to grow bigger. So there is a coincidence of meaning, just as there is with ferment.

  3. I never connected foment with foam, probably because of the differences in spelling. But I have always enjoyed fomenting a bit of amiable unrest.

  4. There don't seem to be a lot of people who seen links between foment and moment, either, which on the surface would seem quite easy to do. But words with the same beginnings may seem to have stronger connections than words that rhyme. I wonder why.

  5. Somebody once called linguistics the science in which vowels mean little and consonants even less (or maybe the other way around). I always think of consonants as the bearers of meaning, and vowels as the sounds that shape and create shades of that meaning. So the different consonants that begin foment and moment would eliminate the possibility that I would connect the two in any way.

  6. However, foment and moment do share three consonants, so what we're talking about is beginning consonants, and the question is why they bear so much of the weight.

    I have seen many examples of how we read which leave out the whole middles of words though, and how we are able to find meaning anyway. I suppose this is good news for people who are bad spellers.

  7. How we read and how we hear, too, I think. The beginning of a word sets off that neurological process by which we recognize the rest of the word. This must be tied in with the importance of initial consonants.

    And then there is the triliteral system, by which Hebrew, Arabic, and other Semitic languages form their roots.

  8. It would be fun to try and figure out how I decipher things, as quite a lot of my job involves hearing what people say and trying to decipher it appropriately. Some of the guesses I make are quite unintentionally hilarious.

    If there was a word 'voment', it would often be mixed up with the topic word here.

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  10. For me, voment would be thrown up rather than mixed up.

  11. Hmm...was the storming of the Bastille a fomentous occasion?

  12. Not sure if fomentous is a word yet, but perhaps you've just coined it. I don't think I really want 'voment' to catch on...

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  15. Wait, I have it now!

    You don't think it's a serviceable word for an occasion of great importance that nonetheless makes one want to upchuck?

    Which reminds me that as soon as a I learned the Dutch word for upchuck, I wanted to use it as a character's name: Baron van Overgeven.

    But be careful because:


    overgeven (strong class 5, separable)
    1.(transitive) to hand over, to give over
    2.(reflexive) to surrender, to give oneself up
    3.(intransitive) to vomit

  16. I would there not to be many of those occasions of great importance, is all.

  17. I fear that, like many good words, foment is on its way out because it's more and more used in conjunction only with rebellion. There's a name for the linguistic process that escapes me ...

    -Brian O

  18. Brian, does the process you have in mind have to do with a word becoming attached to one particular kind of meaning, or is it that words tend to get taken over by negative sorts of associations because of the powerful feelings they invoke?

    (Nice to see you around these parts, by the way.)