co·​lo·​nial·​ism | \ kə-ˈlō-nē-ə-ˌli-zəm How to pronounce colonialism (audio) , -nyə-ˌli- \
plural colonialisms

Definition of colonialism

1a see usage paragraph below : domination of a people or area by a foreign state or nation : the practice of extending and maintaining a nation's political and economic control over another people or area

Note: While the word colonialism is sometimes considered to encompass non-state forms of influence and domination, as by corporate or religious entities, in general use it is more typically understood as an extension of state power.

… The United States was a product of colonialism by mass migrations, and it was the colonialists themselves who created the country; India and China were victims of an extractive colonialism that drained away national wealth.— Manjari Miller Africa's push for independence from colonialism, which mirrored [Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s] movement for racial equality in America, attracted his support.— Rodney Muhumuza While the primary colonial identification for Jamaicans was English, American colonialism was a strong force in my childhood—and of course continues today. We were sent American movies and American music. American aluminum companies had already discovered bauxite on the island and were shipping the ore to their mainland. United Fruit bought our bananas.— Michelle Cliff
b : the policy of or belief in acquiring and retaining colonies We want to discover how that era evolved and how the paternalistic attitude of colonialism manifested itself.— Chris Vieler-Porter
2a old-fashioned : the quality or state of being a colony or of behaving like a colony A new generation had to come upon the stage before our politics were finally taken out of colonialism and made national and American … . It was the foresight and the courage of [President George] Washington which at the outset placed the United States in their relations with foreign nations on the ground of a firm, independent, and American policy.— Henry Cabot Lodge
b somewhat disparaging : something (such as a custom, idea, or idiom) that is characteristic of a colony

Note: Colonialism in this use can refer to something that is learned from the colonizing power or that distinguishes the people of a colony from the colonizing power.

Americans shed their colonialisms one by one, for political colonialism was merely the first to go. … Many Americans still felt inferior to Englishmen in their language, and a strong jolt was necessary to dislodge that last colonialism.— Allen Walker Read American lexicographer Noah Webster, in his dictionaries of the early 1800s, "wanted an American language," [John] Taylor said. Webster included such uniquely American words as woodchuck and caucus, which were seen by unapproving British reviewers as "vulgar colonialisms."— Elizabeth Williams

Other Words from colonialism

colonialist \ kə-​ˈlō-​nē-​ə-​list How to pronounce colonialism (audio) , -​nyə-​list \ noun or adjective
Western/European colonialists
colonialistic \ kə-​ˌlō-​nē-​ə-​ˈli-​stik How to pronounce colonialism (audio) , -​nyə-​ˈli-​ \ adjective

Usage of Colonialism and Imperialism

In contexts dealing with the domination of a people or area by a foreign power, colonialism and imperialism are often used together with no real distinction in meaning. Used separately, however, each of these words can take on a slightly different emphasis. Colonialism comes from colony, and tends to be applied in contexts addressing the effects that colonialism has on the lives of those living in colonies. Imperialism is closely related to empire and therefore tends to place more emphasis on the ruling power and its intent to expand its dominion, as well as on the expanded empire itself, with its distinct parts subsumed under the banner of the dominating force.

Examples of colonialism in a Sentence

Recent Examples on the Web Architecture wasn’t just defined by the local conditions and availability of materials, it was also influenced by the legacy of colonialism. Philip Kennicott, Washington Post, 17 May 2022 Between 1933 and 1945, Soviet and Nazi colonialism made Ukraine the most dangerous place in the world. Timothy Snyder, The New Yorker, 28 Apr. 2022 In 2020, the scholar Kyle Keeler argued the Anthropocene should instead be called the Kleptocene, to clarify the ongoing role of colonialism in the climate crisis. New York Times, 14 Mar. 2022 The civil rights struggles in the United States and the end of colonialism in Africa came at the same time and naturally the movements dovetailed. Forrest Brown, CNN, 14 Jan. 2022 The museum has refused to do so, with the decision intensifying the ongoing debate and arguments over colonialism in paleontology. Riley Black, Smithsonian Magazine, 27 Dec. 2021 Onions are even more integral to Koite’s line of yassa dishes, which venture beyond the classic chicken prep known as poulet yassa, the name a lingering reminder of French colonialism in Senegal. Washington Post, 7 Oct. 2021 As historian Joshua Specht shows, ranchers have historically been the speartip of settler colonialism in the American West. Jan Dutkiewicz, The New Republic, 23 Sep. 2021 In this way, Leigh reappropriates a portrait initially depicted through a lens of colonialism, literally recasting it in bronze. Colleen Barry, ajc, 21 Apr. 2022 See More

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'colonialism.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

First Known Use of colonialism

1843, in the meaning defined at sense 2b

History and Etymology for colonialism

see colony

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Time Traveler for colonialism

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The first known use of colonialism was in 1843

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Dictionary Entries Near colonialism

colonial goose



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Statistics for colonialism

Last Updated

20 May 2022

Cite this Entry

“Colonialism.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 29 May. 2022.

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More from Merriam-Webster on colonialism

Britannica English: Translation of colonialism for Arabic Speakers Encyclopedia article about colonialism


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