Ferment - foment

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In ordinary speech, the sounds of these two words are almost indistinguishable. Their meanings are quite close. So they are often confused. But they are different, and should not be confused.

  • 'To ferment' is a verb referring to the action of yeast (and other microbiological organisms). It means, literally, to 'cause a chemical change in', and primarily, to split sugars into carbon dioxide and alcohol. This is a process widely met in our lives; fermentation is the key process in making wines and beers, where it is called brewing. In baking bread, fermentation is the process whereby bread is 'raised' - the dough becomes light and airy. The verb can be transitive ('the baker fermented his dough overnight') or intransitive ('the dough fermented overnight'). The word ferment is used figuratively about certain similar, not necessarily biological, processes in modern chemistry. (For a note about pronunciation, see Ferment (pronunciation).)
The noun 'ferment' means, in its literal sense, the substance that is bubbling away while the process of fermentation is happening.
Figuratively, the noun means (and the verb 'to ferment' means to cause) a more or less violent disturbance, and change in something, usually of a social or political kind. Before a revolution, it can be said of the state of society that 'the people were in a ferment'.
  • To foment is a transitive verb. Its original, and literal, meaning was 'to apply heat, or hot substances, to a diseased part of the body in order to cure it'. (The noun foment is listed in the OED as "now rare", so don't use it.) The verb is used figuratively to mean 'to promote the growth of', or 'to encourage or stimulate'. It is often used here in a disapproving sense.
We can say that "agitators fomented the unrest before a revolution". In this sense, there is an obvious temptation to use the verb "to ferment" transitively, to convey a slightly different - but still very similar - image. Are the agitators 'encouraging' revolution, in a positive sense ('encouraging the growth of something of which I approve', as a doctor might apply a poultice), or are they 'causing a violent change', as yeast bubbles in a fermentation vat? You, the writer, should choose - but try to think about your choice.