co·​lo·​nial·​ism kə-ˈlō-nē-ə-ˌli-zəm How to pronounce colonialism (audio)
plural colonialisms
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
: 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
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
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
colonialist noun or adjective
Western/European colonialists
colonialistic 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 It is fueled by a legacy of colonialism and the genocide across the border in Rwanda, which has helped fill refugee camps with more than 5.5 million people. Ruth MacLean, New York Times, 31 Jan. 2023 On my father’s side are Australian settlers and British shipbuilders, the other side of colonialism. Eleanor Shearer, Good Housekeeping, 27 Jan. 2023 So long as Britain’s history of colonialism exists, so too will potential plotlines for the world of RRR, the breakout Telugu-language blockbuster from director S.S. Rajamouli. Vulture, 19 Dec. 2022 The world of comic book superhero movies often fails to address some of the biggest real-world problems, like systemic inequalities, climate change, or the lingering effects of colonialism. Toby Franklin, San Diego Union-Tribune, 18 Dec. 2022 While the 1998 team’s symbolism of unity faded from memory, the 2018 team – many of whom will be on the field again defending France’s title in Qatar – served as an admission that France needed the children of colonialism to lift World Cup gold. Khaled A. Beydoun, CNN, 13 Dec. 2022 Set in the mid-19th century, Hanna Pylväinen’s tale offers not only exquisite prose and insightful observations, but also fresh perspectives on family bonds, cultural traditions, and religious colonialism. Monitor Reviewers, The Christian Science Monitor, 27 Jan. 2023 The real-life Bheem also rebelled against colonialism, with efforts centered in the Hyperabad State of British India. Katie Reul, Variety, 9 Jan. 2023 See More

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'colonialism.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History


see colony

First Known Use

1791, in the meaning defined at sense 1a

Time Traveler
The first known use of colonialism was in 1791

Dictionary Entries Near colonialism

Cite this Entry

“Colonialism.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 5 Dec. 2023.

Kids Definition


co·​lo·​nial·​ism kə-ˈlō-nē-ə-ˌliz-əm How to pronounce colonialism (audio)
: control by one nation over a dependent area or people
also : a policy that favors or is based on such control
colonialist noun or adjective

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