Fifth Column

Dave Wilton dave at WILTON.NET
Mon Oct 28 16:58:50 UTC 2002

> > Believe it or not, there are lots of people
> >  (including stacks of today's undergrads) who not only
> don't remember
> >  Howard Cossell but draw blanks on "thriller in Manila" or
> "Cassius Clay"
> >  . . . or, for that matter, such Viet Nam War catchphrases
> as "light at
> >  the end
> >  of the tunnel" or even "make love, not war".  "I like Ike" or "when
> >  Harry dropped the bomb" are blanks for any but some pretty
> old codgers,
> Is "Fifth Column" another such phrase which can be considered
> to have dropped
> out of the language (in this case, all European languages) to appear
> forevermore only in Fred Shapiro quotation books?

Gooja turns up over 15,000 hits for "fifth column" on Usenet. I don't think
the phrase is dead yet (lots of uses in reference to al-Qaeda). Glancing at
the first page of hits, it seems as if people are using it naturally and not
in quotes or asking what it means (although I'm sure a fair amount of that
happens as well). I used to get asked where this phrase comes from quite
frequently--until I put it up on my site a few months ago. The phrase seems
to be familiar and the sense clear to most, but the original reference is
obscure to many.

"Light at the end of the tunnel" a Vietnam-era phrase? The OED2 has a 1922
cite with that exact phrasing (actually it's "daylight") and an 1879 George
Eliot citation using the metaphor, but not the exact phrase.

I also hear "I like Ike" occasionally, usually when someone wants to evoke
the 50s. I would think that large numbers of those who weren't around then
(like me) instantly recognize the phrase. "When Harry dropped the bomb" I
have never heard, but the reference is clear to anyone with even a little
American History in their background (although my first reaction was to
conflate it with "When Harry Met Sally.")

> P.S.  Come to think of it, today's college students must be
> pretty shaky on
> what the "Iron Curtain" was.

Heavy metal band?

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