fifth column


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

Recent Examples on the Web The Kremlin propaganda that portrays them as fifth column, as agents of the West, has been successful, and people at large look at them as trouble makers. Foreign Affairs, 18 Apr. 2016 Hard-nosed critics of Islam and Muslim immigration frequently argue that Islam is incompatible with democracy and freedom, painting Muslims as a fifth column. Jacob McHangama, Time, 9 Aug. 2023 In a long and, at times, emotional speech on state television earlier this week, Mr. Putin accused the West of seeking to destabilize Russia from within, saying that a fifth column of collaborators and turncoats were already working in the interests of the U.S. and Europe inside the country. Thomas Grove, WSJ, 17 Mar. 2022 The Beijing-Taipei contest for influence in the ethnic Chinese community exacerbated the suspicion that the Chinese represented a fifth column. Taomo Zhou, Foreign Affairs, 11 Feb. 2020 Now, in an echo of the histories of ancient empires, the esteemed elite guard may prove to be a dangerous fifth column. Ishaan Tharoor, Washington Post, 25 June 2023 The historic attachment to Russia has led critics – which include the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) – to consider such Orthodox churches and their adherents in Ukraine to be a pro-Russian fifth column that is especially dangerous in wartime. Scott Peterson, The Christian Science Monitor, 24 May 2023 That’s clearly a factor in the mobilization against Muslims, who are seen as a fifth column of Pakistan articulating a jihadi discourse. Isaac Chotiner, The New Yorker, 31 Mar. 2023 Descendants of Palestinians who remained within the borders of what became Israel, they are seen by many Jewish Israelis as a fifth column because of their ties and solidarity with Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Tia Goldenberg, ajc, 30 Mar. 2023 See More

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

Word History


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

First Known Use

1936, in the meaning defined above

Time Traveler
The first known use of fifth column was in 1936


Dictionary Entries Near fifth column

Cite this Entry

“Fifth column.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 6 Dec. 2023.

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