Sour grapes

Bart Ingles sent a Washington Post headline: “Insurgents Attempting to Ferment ‘Civil War’ in Iraq Sought Al Qaeda Help.”

Apparently, they are stamping out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.

When I was at the Mercury News, I always made sure I proofed the headlines on our pages. It’s a personal rule: Don’t make your mistakes in the big type.

About Joanne


  1. Well, I had to read that headline three times before I caught on to what you’re talking about. Funny how the brain just substitutes the right thing in and keeps on going. Perhaps they could resolve the civil war with a drinking contest. Last person under the table wins. It’d save a lot of bloodshed.

  2. Apparently “foment” is an old bootlegger’s term, as in “my pappy usta foment the mash in a big copper kittle”.

    The pundants ought to have fun with this one.

  3. The typo might have been made by someone who pronounces “er” as “uh” without an “r.” I’m an “r”-pronouncer, so “foment” and “ferment” sound too different for me to confuse. But at high speed, the two words do become indistinguishable as “fmnt.”

  4. Chalk up one victory for Invented Spelling.

  5. Will Allen says:

    What is the best food match for a finely fermented civil war?

  6. The drinking contest has been used before. According to legend and maybe some historical fact, the mayor of Rothenburg on the Tauber in Germany used it to save his city from advancing Catholic armies in the civil war in 1631. He bet Tilly, the invading general, that if he could drain a 13 liter stein of wine in one go, Tilly would spare the city. He did, and Tilly being a good Catholic, spared the city. The event is known as the Meisterdrunk. I somehow feel that it may not have worked with an invading Protestant army, but my religious history isn’t quite up to the task.


  7. What is the best food match for a finely fermented civil war?

    Beef Wellington, I think (OK, it wasn’t a civil war, but it was the best I could do).

  8. Joanne, maybe it’s just an attempt to subvert the Islamic prohibition on alcohol?

  9. Well, I read and I read and I can’t figure out the error.

    My dictionary gives the following definition for ferment 2: to work up ( as into a state of agitation) : foment.

    Definition for foment: rouse, incite

    They seem synonymous to me.

  10. Mark, you can find a dictionary that will claim “imply” and “infer” are synonyms, too. Doesn’t make them right.

  11. Sorry. Ferment and foment can be used as synonyms. You’re all wrong. The author is right, as is Mark. And Charlie is a jerk.

  12. As an electrical engineer by education, I should sterotypically have marginal abilities in written and verbal communications. I am constantly astounded by the errors I frequently see in print, made by journalists who supposedly majored in writing and communications, and then purported ly proofed by professional editors and proof readers. Within the last week, I saw a glaring headline using “whom” when it should have been “who”. So – does this “Sour Grapes” posting surprise me? Not on your life.

  13. Steve LaBonne says:

    It’s all just one big sour mash over there, I tell you.

  14. Oh yes, least anyone think it is limited to the printed media, I recall the two different TV reporters who totally “mangled” the pronunciation/emphasis of key words in their report: 1) Cad-Aver dogs instead of cadaver, and then, 2) ak-cell-o-meters instead of accelerometers. Really blew the “em-pha-sis on the sy-ab – le ! I understand that reporters wind up covering a wide range of topics, and they aren’t all pre-med, physics or engineering majors – but hey, when it is critical to your report, at least take the time, trouble, effort to say the key words correctly so you don’t come across as a “blathering idiot”! After all, not only is it their NAME on the report, it is their FACE on the screen for all to see! A little pride iin work and craftsmanship!

  15. Steve LaBonne says:

    Seriously, while “ferment” certainly isn’t _wrong_ in this example, “ferment” as a transitive verb does tend to connote stirring things up in a value-neutral sense, whereas “foment” normally has a definitely pejorative sense and thus would be the better choice when we’re talking about stirring up something bad, like civil war. As English speakers we’re lucky to have available a huge vocabulary that allows us to make such fine distinctions of meaning and connotation, and they’re worth preserving.


    You’re all wrong. Stop writing crap. They are synonyms.

  17. Bashir Gemayel says:

    So does civil war taste great? Or less filling?

  18. Steve LaBonne says:

    No Brian, they can have _similar_ meanings, but a glance at any decent usage guide should convince you that they are not exact synomyms. Many useage choices are not a black-and-white, right-or-wrong affair but turn on which word more precisely conveys the intended meaning. All who care about the language should strive to preserve and expand such choices, not eliminate them by lazily conflating the meanings of distinct words.

  19. The dictionary only indicates usage in society. It is not a guide of “correct” English.

    “Foment” is the correct word to use here. “Ferment” has an entirely different connotation.

  20. Forget the small stuff. The headline got the story backwards.

  21. ferment – forment – have any of you noticed how frequently you see puns (or near puns)or equivalent “play on words” in headlines, probably to try and attract your attention? Endemic.

  22. I’ll drink to that.

  23. Forget the small stuff. The headline got the story backwards.

    Al Qaeda sought the help of the insurgents? That could be, but not sure it’s a major distinction. It may have been mutual.

    Anyway, I’d be more surprised if the headline makes it into the print edition.

  24. As a former headline writer, I can assure you that the headline writer was thinking “foment” and got it wrong. Sometimes a word that isn’t quite right is used for space considerations but that doesn’t apply here.

  25. Nothing yet I’ve heard can beat one anchorwoman’s comment I heard a few years back. Apparently, invention is the mother of necessity.

  26. About Der Meisterdrunk: Whoever said that blogreading isn’t intellectual. Compulsive fact-checkers can go here:


    It says that Gen Tilley was not a nice man – “bloodthirsty” is the word they use – but those were the old old days when honor and a man’s word meant something.

    The legend is celebrated in that grand old opera, “Der Meisterdrunk von Rothenburg”.

    As for “foment/ferment”, the meanings are clear. Yeast ferments, agitators foment. You have to be careful with thesauruses. I could probably give you a chain from “black” to “white”. (But don’t ask.)

  27. Interesting comments on synonyms as my son is doing thesaurus excercises right now. I’m having to explain why about 1/2 of his sentences are wrong. Example: look – view “Look out the window”.

  28. Now that ‘ferment’ has been beaten to death, isn’t the proper wording from the Battle Hymn of the Republic ‘trampled out’?

  29. As Mike said, yeast ferments, agitators foment. “Ferment” may also be used in a metaphorical sense, but it doesn’t fit well in that sentence. “Foment” fits perfectly. This is malapropism, not the metaphorical sense of “ferment”. (Joanne, not the newspaper, brought up the “grapes of wrath” that turns it into a pun.)

    Ten to fifteen years ago, I could easily trace the spread of spellcheckers through the newspaper industry by the increase in malaproprism. Without spellcheckers, writers either avoid words they aren’t sure about or drag out the dictionary, which will immediately tell you when you’re mixing up words with different meanings. With spellcheckers, they get overconfident, type an approximation, and then accept the wrong correction for it. And the English language loses a bit more of its beauty and precision.

  30. Hey markm, try teaching 7th grade science. I just graded a report in which a student referred to “demonized water.”

  31. Had to fire up Word to confirm that. Yes, Word doesn’t recognize “deionized” and suggests “demonized”. You really, really can’t rely on spellcheck for jargon. (Or was this the kid’s explanation for why the chemistry experiment came out wrong?)

    Incidentally, my boss keeps calling me to ask how to spell something. I’m an engineer, often stereotyped as having poor communications skills all around, e.g.: “Used to be I cudnt spell ignineer, now I are one.” But I had mean old lady teachers that hammered phonics into us no matter what the curriculum said, God bless them.

  32. Mark, you’re right. And “The jargonny term ‘spell checker’ is an affront to the English language–unless you want to check for curses, cantrips and spells,” according to a commentator in no less than the Journal of the ACM, a few years back.

    And I agree that ferment and foment have no business being conflated.