What are some ways to say that the first one who does something bad is the "biggest sinner" as the other ones just followed along and thereby their action is not as bad? Examples:

  • The one who throws the first piece of trash in the nature
  • In a mass-fight: The one who throws the first punch
  • the first to drop a bomb which then starts the war

...And so on?

  • I don't think the biblical quote about the "first stone" suggests that they're the biggest sinner.
    – Barmar
    Feb 2, 2015 at 19:05
  • You're right. Edited.
    – Dencker
    Feb 2, 2015 at 19:06
  • It's a good question. Do you know of a saying in another language? I'm just curious: How would it translate directly? Feb 2, 2015 at 19:08
  • 1
    Well, my mother always told me that "The one who throws the first piece of trash is the most dirty pig" (a quite direct translation from danish), literally referring to throwing trash in nature, so I grew up with sticking the trash in my pocket until I came by a trashcan. So I figured that there might be some generic way to describe such a situation.
    – Dencker
    Feb 2, 2015 at 19:17
  • I would disagree with this. I think that the first person to "sin" would be the least-biggest sinner, since it's more likely that they were unaware of the consequences of their actions - uneducated about what may happen if they do whatever it is they did. Other people, the followers, likely saw what happened after the first ones sinned - they likely realised that if you do this, then it's not good because this will happen. But then they choose to sin anyway.
    – RǢF
    Feb 3, 2015 at 13:01

5 Answers 5


I can't think of a saying. In fact, there is an American (Western?) idea that each individual is responsible for their own behavior. If someone tries to reduce their culpability with "Susan did it first!", a common reply is "If Susan jumped off a bridge, would you do it, too?"

However, the word instigator often has a negative connotation, and that does sometimes contain the idea that the first person to do something is more blameworthy than followers:

verb tr.
1. To initiate or bring about, often by inciting: instigate a public discussion of the issue; instigate an uprising.


a person who causes something to happen, especially something bad: The instigators of the disturbance have not yet been identified.


Finally, when trying to ameliorate fault or culpability, people might say He/she did it first, etc.

  • It is indeed western, I believe. We have the same cultural idea in Denmark; you're not freed of your actions just because you followed along, but if you're the first one to do it, you're even worse. So if it's worth 100 points badness if you hit someone, it doesnt mean that the next ones doing it only get 80 points badness, rather the first one is worth 120 points.. Quite a weird metaphor, but you get the idea. Instigate must be the word I'm looking for. I'm going to accept your answer as it's more clarifying.
    – Dencker
    Feb 2, 2015 at 19:28
  • And, of course….
    – wchargin
    Feb 3, 2015 at 0:13

Words that come to mind for me are things like aggressor, instigator, and provoker.

Additionally, throwing the first stone in your example doesn't follow with the others, because that story hinges on the first person to throw stones being without sin.

  • You're right. The biblical version is indeed not suitable in this context, although i believe that the moral of that story is that no-one is without sin, and therefore no stones should be thrown. But those are good words to describe that person - what I was wondering, though, was if there is any generic, metaphoric way to describe that situation?
    – Dencker
    Feb 2, 2015 at 19:11
  • What actually caused my wonder is the ISIS-Jordan situation where this guy had made a comment that Jordan would be no better if they killed the ISIS-prisoners if ISIS killed their pilot; which made me think that the real "bad guy" must be the one provoking the escalation of the situation; which lead me to think if there were any special way to say that.
    – Dencker
    Feb 2, 2015 at 19:14
  • To instigate and to provoke mean to cause or tend to cause or to encourage someone to do something, but not necessarily by doing it first. Feb 2, 2015 at 19:31
  • 1
    Aggressor does mean to attack first. So that applies to ISIS (at least with beheadings, at least I guess!), but not to littering. Feb 2, 2015 at 19:35

The word ringleader combines the meanings 'instigator' and 'worst offender':

ringleader: The ringleaders in a quarrel, disturbance, or illegal activity are the people who started it and who cause most of the trouble.

{Collins Cobuild Reverso Dictionary}

I see in one of your comments that you really want 'the real "bad guy" [who] must be the one [insidiously] provoking the escalation of the situation'. That's an agent provocateur (looser sense):

agent provocateur

A [loan lexeme] meaning provoking agent, used to mean a person who deliberately encourages another to commit an illegal act for which they can be prosecuted.

{Dictionary of Unfamiliar Words by Diagram Group}

  • Interesting. I had thought it was a narrower term: that there needed to be an organization. Feb 2, 2015 at 19:41
  • The dictionary formerly known as Google has, for 'ringleader',: 'a person who initiates or leads an illicit or illegal activity'. Here, 'leads' must be being used in its 'managerial' sense, but 'lead' generally may just refer to being ahead spatially or temporally etc (as in a race, a market leader). From the above definition, 'ringleader' does not need to carry the 'orchestrate' sense either, as the definition has 'initiates [and/or] leads'. Feb 2, 2015 at 19:57

I'm quite fond of the word henchman, expressing the dual concept: one of the sidekicks of the villain. As there tend to be several henchmen, the word is often used in its plural form. It already connotes evil or foul play.

Admittedly there's no implication that the villain is on the spot to initiate the deed; often on the contrary, he just masterminds things from behind, his henchmen acting on his orders. However, he takes a major part of moral responsibility for the deed.


There is also bellwether, the meaning of which has drifted from "the ram in charge of a flock of sheep" into a more political area. However, the Dutch equivalent "belhamel" still applies to a naughty, mischievous kid.

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