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
fifth columnismplay \-ˈkä-ləm-ˌ(n)i-zəm\ noun
Did You Know?
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.
Origin and Etymology of fifth column
name applied to rebel sympathizers in Madrid in 1936 when four rebel columns were advancing on the city
First Known Use: 1936
Learn More about fifth column
Britannica.com: Encyclopedia article about fifth column
Seen and Heard
What made you want to look up fifth column? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible).