Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Fifth Column

John Dew asked about the term “fifth column.” It is a plot element in the TV series, V. It shows up in a couple of episode summaries on the ABC web site.

  • V: Heretic's Fork: Now that the computer with contact info for other Fifth Column members has fallen into the wrong hands, the lives of the Fifth Column members are in danger, prompting Erica, Father Jack and Hobbes to take drastic measures to protect them.

  • V: We Can't Win: Anna and Chad head to Switzerland for the U.N. energy summit; Erica discovers that the Fifth Column is being investigated; unable to trust Ryan, Valerie goes on the run.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, a fifth column is a clandestine group or faction of subversive agents who attempt to undermine a nation’s solidarity by means of infiltration. The term is credited to General Emilio Mola Vidal, a Nationalist general during the Spanish Civil War (1936–39). As four of his army columns approached Madrid, the general referred to his militant supporters within the capital as his “fifth column,” intent on undermining the loyalist government from within.

The term caught on in World War II, especially amongst the British, the Americans, and the Canadians. Fear of a Fifth Column led them to set up internment camps for people of Japanese, German, and Italian ancestry.

The first instance cited in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the October 16, 1936, New York Times: “Police last night began a house-to-house search for Rebels in Madrid. . . . Orders for these raids . . . apparently were instigated by a recent broadcast over the Rebel radio station by General Emilio Mola. He stated he was counting on four columns of troops outside Madrid and another column of persons hiding within the city who would join the invaders as soon as they entered the capital.”

SIDEBAR: Hemingway’s Fifth Column

Available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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