I've come across the word 'provocateur' several times, but mostly in the context of Eastern European politics (so, I assumed, it was a straightforward translation of 'провокатор'). Lately, I've noticed it in a WP article about Portland protests.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler turned the blame back on the president, saying Trump had “supported and energized” provocateurs who had come to the city to create chaos.

There are two problems. First, Lexico doesn't have such an entry. Second, the closest thing to it, 'agent provocateur' (one could suppose that 'provocateur' is just the phrase's clipping), doesn't seem to match the context. "A person who induces others to break the law so that they can be convicted," defines the expression Lexico. Longman adds that such people are "employed". While it's possible in countries like Russia and Ukraine, I doubt that in the US, the government can pay people to provoke its opponents into committing illegal acts. Therefore, I suspect that the word meant something different in the WP article. What exactly and how common and idiomatic it is?

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    'employ' simply means 'use for a purpose', it doesn't require payment, although the noun 'employment' is mostly used for paying people to work. I am employing my computer to post this comment. Not everything a President, or other office-holder, does is a government act -- although law-enforcement officers at all levels of US government incuding Federal do sometimes encourage people who (they believe) are 'predisposed' to crime to do so in a way that can be prosecuted; if the person would not have committed the crime on their own, this is en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Entrapment Commented Sep 1, 2020 at 18:03
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    "I doubt that in the US, the government can pay people to provoke its opponents into committing illegal acts" - this article seems to imply not monetary incentives, but moral support. Anyway, just recall Watergate for examples of what US presidents believed they could get away with.
    – IMil
    Commented Sep 2, 2020 at 2:17
  • It's fair to say that it's a word in its own right, and not simply an adjunct to 'agent'. It's become much more popular than its anglicised equivalent 'provocator' bit.ly/3jB56Qw I think this might be related to the sound of the two words; the English word places the stress on a different syllable from the French one - but this is pure speculation.
    – Strawberry
    Commented Sep 2, 2020 at 9:56
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    "one could suppose that 'provocateur' is just the phrase's clipping" It's not. The "agent" part implies that the provocation is Machiavellian in nature, i.e. that there's an ulterior motive behind it. Provocation can be done for ulterior reasons (e.g. delegitimizing the person you provoked into action), but it can also just be provocation for provocation's sake (e.g. picking a fight with someone because you want to fight them).
    – Flater
    Commented Sep 2, 2020 at 12:17
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    Sergey (1) it's a totally normal word that every English speaker knows. It sounds "a bit French", like say "croissant". (2) It's really weird it's not in Lexico, which is usually quite good. But it's a totally completely normal word that every English speaker knows. (3) "agent provocateur" is totally unrelated and it's just confusing that you mention it at all; I suggest deleting that passage from your question.
    – Fattie
    Commented Sep 2, 2020 at 14:33

5 Answers 5


Provocateur is present in Merriam-Webster's online dictionary with two definitions:

1 : agent provocateur

2 : one who provokes

a political provocateur

The OED definition, meanwhile, is "A person who provokes a disturbance; an agitator; an agent provocateur".

"Agent provocateur", in turn, is defined first as a person employed by government to incite unrest in order to discredit a cause, but a secondary definition (dating back to the 19th century) records an "extended and figurative use": "A person or thing that incites some action or reaction; a provoking cause or agent."


Google Ngram Viewer shows that the term "provocateur" has not only been increasingly in frequency in recent decades but, since 1980, has increased in frequency significantly faster than the term "agent provocateur" (of which it is sometimes seen as an abbreviated form).

Google Ngram Viewer results for 'provocateur'

The OED places the word "provocateur" in Frequency Band 4. This band is defined as follows: "Band 4 contains words which occur between 0.1 and 1.0 times per million words in typical modern English usage. Such words are marked by much greater specificity and a wider range of register, regionality, and subject domain than those found in bands 8-5. However, most words remain recognizable to English-speakers, and are likely be used unproblematically in fiction or journalism. Examples include overhang, life support, register, rewrite, nutshell, candlestick, rodeo, embouchure, insectivore...".


A provocateur is someone who provokes. Not all use of "provocateur" is political (except perhaps in a very broad definition): The Guardian recently quoted Richard Saltoun describing the performance artist Ulay as follows:

Ulay was the freest of spirits – a pioneer and provocateur with a radically and historically unique oeuvre.

Similarly, Diane Kashin wrote a blog about teachers as provocateurs and Forbes recently asked "Are you an office peacemaker or a provocateur?"


There is nothing particularly weird or unnatural about the word. It retains its French spelling and approximate pronunciation, but, as its OED frequency band suggests, it is likely to be recognisable to most people and there is nothing unidiomatic about it (although I prefer to reserve the term "idiomatic" for phrases, constructions, etc, rather than using it to describe individual words).

  • The main point is that it is a borrowing.
    – Lambie
    Commented Sep 2, 2020 at 20:59
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    The word has blurred into "false flag". Commented Sep 2, 2020 at 22:03

A provocateur is someone who provokes. From the Cambridge Dictionary:

Provoke - to cause a reaction, especially a negative one

In the article, the provocateurs are causing chaos in the city which is the negative reaction in this case.

I wouldn't say this is idiomatic. Many native American English speakers can deduce what this means based on their familiarity with the word "provoke".

If you want an idiom with a similar meaning, see to rile up.

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    On the contrary, it is idiomatic in British English (arguably middle class). Commented Sep 1, 2020 at 7:17
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    @mjjf This is idiomatic in AmE too. Idiomatic in the sense "containing expressions that are natural and correct". I doubt the average person knows the word. But well-educated people should. It's commonly used in this context, especially in this current climate.
    – Em.
    Commented Sep 1, 2020 at 7:54
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    The term "idiomatic" is usually applied to phrases rather than individual words. The term "provocateur" isn't idiomatic in the sense of "containing expressions that are natural and correct", since it doesn't contain any expressions. It's just a word. One could say that Wheeler's phrasing as a whole was idiomatic. It is strange to call it BrE when it was an American politician who said it and when it's in the M-W dictionary but not in most British dictionaries.
    – rjpond
    Commented Sep 1, 2020 at 20:53
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    I'm in NZ. We speak British English, albeit we may sound funny like to the Brit's. To educated people the term provocateur could be used utterly without misunderstanding or surprise. I'd not consider it any more idiomatic than eg croissant :-). Commented Sep 2, 2020 at 12:36
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    Idioms are combinations of words which have an easily recognized meaning in a certain context, but that meaning does not derive from the meanings of the words themselves. (Of course it also has other meanings, including a specific musical meaning.) If many Popeye's employees use the word "provocateur" to mean "person who orders ten chicken sandwiches during lunch rush" then that would be idiomatic. Using it with its commonly defined meaning is not idiomatic. "Shave my gator" is not an idiom if you are talking about literally shaving your gator. If you mean something else, it's an idiom.
    – barbecue
    Commented Sep 3, 2020 at 0:22

I'm in New Zealand.
We speak British English, although it may sound to the Brit's that we talk somewhat funny-like.

To educated people the term provocateur could be used utterly without misunderstanding or surprise on the hearers part. It's just part of the language.

I'd not consider it any more idiomatic than eg croissant :-).

  • "creoissant" is an excellent example.
    – Fattie
    Commented Sep 2, 2020 at 13:55
  • I'd give just about ANYTHING to go there. :) I just saw The Blue Rose. Ay, but will I ever be able to? :) Yep, it''s all in the e's.
    – Lambie
    Commented Sep 2, 2020 at 20:58
  • @Lambie Where are you located? Odds are the reality is not QUITE up to the image which we hope to carefully cultivate, but it's a reasonably good place to live. Approximately as non-corrupt, free and friendly a place as any (according by surveys by people who say they know what they are talking about). Home of Mt Doom and Hobbiton - what's not to like. Send me a pm if it ever looks like you may ever head this way if you have practical questions. Commented Sep 4, 2020 at 11:58
  • Hi Russel, I am on the East Coast (US). I make my husband perform a haka for me at least once a month (he played rugby in Spain many moons ago) but now, I'm going to insist he learn to sing Nga Te Ariki, as well. :)
    – Lambie
    Commented Sep 4, 2020 at 15:25

It's a completely normal English word, universally used and understood.

(As can be obviously seen by googling it in a zillion US articles, particularly about current (2020) politics and riots.)

Regarding the mystery of why it's not on Lexico, it's probably just an oversight.

(Note that they use the word in other definitions! Example click on the archaic spelling: https://www.lexico.com/definition/provocator )

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    Exactly, the term idiomatic is wrong here.
    – Lambie
    Commented Sep 2, 2020 at 15:59

If by "Idiomatic" you mean "A word or phrase peculiar to a particular period, individual or group" then no it is not idiomatic. "Provocateur" is simply an uncommon word, like "Idiomatic" (in fact, I'd be willing to bet that more people know what provocateur means than know what idiomatic means). Even though they rarely use it, most English speakers know what it means and as far as I know it is generally included in high-school vocabulary lists.

In short, provocateur is no more idiomatic than the word idiomatic is.

  • No, I think that OP means "using, containing, or denoting expressions that are natural to a native speaker." (Oxford Dictionary). Such meaning is widely used in this site.
    – RubioRic
    Commented Sep 4, 2020 at 5:37
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    @RubioRic Well, first that's really for the OP to say, they are perfectly capable of correcting me if I am wrong. Secondly "natural to a native speaker" is one of those abhorrent dictionary definitions that is actually far more ambiguous than the word it is trying to describe. Technically, the vast majority of a language is "natural to a native speaker" excluding only the marginal bits: less common slang, jargon, creole and pidgins. So this definition would mean that virtually the entire language was idiomatic, which is clearly not what the word means nor how it is used. Commented Sep 4, 2020 at 12:56
  • One suspects that they meant to say something like "only natural to a native speaker" but none of these definitions (obviously copied between dictionaries) include that. In any event, a better definition is probably "derived from an idiom and generally only understandable in the context or awareness of that idiom or to someone native to the culture of that idiom" which would include native cultures (but not be limited to them, as idioms and idiomatic speech are not) and is simply a more specific way to phrase the definition that I used. Commented Sep 4, 2020 at 13:03
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    And "Provocateur" is definitely not idiomatic in these definitions because even though it may have derived from an idiom it is not understandable only in the context of that idiom. As others have noted it is easy for listeners to discern that it descends from the word "provoke" on its own and is probably "someone that provokes" something, and in the context of its usage that it means someone who socially or politically provokes. Indeed, I doubt that most people today could identify it as having come from the phrase "Agent Provocateur" if it were not suggested to them. It is not idiomatic. Commented Sep 4, 2020 at 13:11

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