fifth column


Definition of fifth column

: a group of secret sympathizers or supporters of an enemy that engage in espionage or sabotage within defense lines or national borders

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Other Words from fifth column

fifth columnism \ -​ˈkä-​ləm-​ˌ(n)i-​zəm How to pronounce fifth columnism (audio) \ noun
fifth columnist noun

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Fifth column, a translation of the Spanish quinta columna, was inspired by a boast by rebel general Emilio Mola during the Spanish Civil War. Mola predicted Madrid would fall as four columns of rebel troops approaching the city were joined by another hidden column of sympathizers within it. In an October 1936 article in The New York Times, William Carney described those secret rebel supporters as the "fifth column," and English speakers seized upon the term. It gained widespread popularity after Ernest Hemingway used it in the title of a 1938 book, and it was often applied (along with derivative forms such as "fifth columnism" and "fifth columnist") to Nazi supporters within foreign nations during World War II.

Examples of fifth column in a Sentence

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There was a corresponding fear the Axis countries had a fifth column in South America that might undermine American interests. Nicholas Reynolds, WSJ, "‘The Tango War’ Review: The Southern Theater," 24 Oct. 2018 They are viewed by right-wing Israelis as a fifth column with split loyalties and have been increasingly criticized by government officials. Ruth Eglash, Washington Post, "Israeli police accused of brutality in crackdown on demonstrating Israeli Arabs," 21 May 2018 Some Estonians view the Russian minority as a fifth column laying the groundwork for another Russian invasion. Sophie Pinkham, The New Republic, "Why have post-Soviet countries embraced populism and nostalgia?," 3 May 2018 It is deeply connected to the efforts of a fringe set of hate groups that see American Muslims as a fifth column bent on subverting the state. Ishaan Tharoor, Washington Post, "Trump’s would-be secretary of state has an Islamophobia problem," 12 Apr. 2018 Russia is also escalating its interference in the internal political life of the rest of Ukraine, including cyberattacks against government and business targets and the use of fifth columns. Adrian Karatnycky, WSJ, "Putin’s Dangerous New Ukraine Doctrine," 13 July 2017

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

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First Known Use of fifth column

1936, in the meaning defined above

History and Etymology for fifth column

name applied to rebel sympathizers in Madrid in 1936 when four rebel columns were advancing on the city

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The first known use of fifth column was in 1936

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to take the place or position of

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