Simanaitis Says

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RECENT VIOLENCE in the U.S. and around the world raises the question of whether Donald Trump’s rabble-rousing rally pronouncements have a deleterious effect. Is he an instigator, an inciter, or merely a hypocritical, buffonish demogogue?

Whatever one’s view, the two words “instigate” and “incite” are worthy additions to my Etymology for our Times series. In particular, they’re not precise synonyms.

To Incite, an Inciter. Merriam-Webster defines the verb “to incite” as “to move to action: stir up: spur on: urge on.” An inciter is one who performs such behavior.

The word’s English use dates from the 15th century. M-W notes that it derives from Middle French inciter, from Latin incitare, from in- + citare to put in motion, to rouse.

Trump during the 2016 campaign in Wilmington, North Carolina, August 9, 2016: “If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people—maybe there is, I don’t know.” Image by Evan Vucci/AP.

The idea of “citing” a reference comes from the same etymological root. However, modern usage of “incite” has evolved to suggest less benign behavior: “inciting a riot,” for example.

To Instigate, an Instigator. Whereas “incite” may suggest bad behavior, “instigate” pulls no punches. According to Merriam-Webster, the verb “to instigate” is defined as “to goad or urge forward: provoke.”

M-W continues, “Instigate is often used as a synonym of incite (as in ‘hoodlums instigated violence’), but the two words differ slightly in their overall usage. Incite usually stresses an act of stirring something up that one did not necessarily initiate (‘the court’s decision incited riots’).”

By contrast, M-W continues, “Instigate implies responsibility for initiating or encouraging someone else’s action and usually suggests dubious or underhanded intent (‘he was charged with instigating a conspiracy’).”

Trump in Missoula, Montana, October 18, 2018: “Any guy who can do a body slam, he’s my guy. I shouldn’t say… there’s nothing to be embarrassed about.” His crowd cheered; I am embarrassed. Image from

M-W adds, “Another similar word, foment, implies causing something by means of persistent goading (‘the leader’s speeches fomented a rebellion’). Deriving from the past participle of the Latin verb instigare, instigate first appeared in English in the mid-16th century, approximately 60 years after incite and about 70 years before foment.

A Fomented Detour. In a brief side-track, M-W describes “If you had sore muscles in the 1600s, your doctor might have advised you to foment the injury, perhaps with heated lotions or warm wax. Does this sound like an odd prescription? Not if you know that ‘foment’ traces to the Latin verb fovēre, which means ‘to heat.’ ”

A not unrelated word, “fermentation,” is described as “an enzymatically controlled anaerobic breakdown of an energy-rich compound (such as a carbohydrate to carbon dioxide and alcohol or to an organic acid).” Fermentum is the Latin word for yeast.

English usage of “ferment” has evolved metaphorically: M-W offers a second description: “a process of active often disorderly development // the great period of creative ferment in literature—William Barrett.”

Trump on divide and conquer, Phoenix, Arizona, August 22, 2017: “They’re trying to take away our culture. They are trying to take away our history.” Earlier image by Reuters from The Telegraph, March 6, 2016.

People miss the nuances of “ferment” and “foment,” and it’s no wonder. Among synonyms for “ferment,” M-W lists abet, brew, foment, incite, instigate, pick, provoke, raise, stir (up), and whip (up).

Which raises yet another question: Is Trump a “fermenter”?

To many of us who appreciate in moderation the results of fermentation, this sounds entirely too benign. But isn’t etymology fun? ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2018

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