What Does “Plead the Fifth” Mean? Definition and Examples
Has anyone ever asked you a question that you really didn't want to answer? The shady kind of question that puts you on the spot where the answer will, 100%, get you in trouble. For example, “who put an empty milk carton back in the fridge last night?” Definitely not you, right? Luckily, you can always plead the fifth and hope for the best.
You may have seen this expression in movies or books, but it's a fundamental right that every US citizen can invoke as part of the constitution. In a court of law, it usually means that the witness remains silent and refuses to testify against themselves.
In everyday language, you can use the expression "to plead the fifth" when refusing to answer any kind of tricky question, in order not to incriminate yourself.
Where does “plead the fifth’ come from, originally?
Pleading or taking the fifth is a legal term used during a criminal investigation or in a court of law. It refers to the fifth amendment of the US constitution which ensures a fair trial and a substantive due process for every citizen. In other words, it gives us the right to protect ourselves from incriminating questions and potentially harmful situations.
Some perceive pleading the fifth as incriminating on its own—what do you have to hide if you're not guilty? However, the Supreme Court doesn't consider that as proof of guilt.
Let's take a dive in US history and read the fifth amendment:
No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
As you can see, the fifth amendment covers a lot of grounds, from the right to be interrogated by a jury, to the prohibition of being prosecuted twice for the same crime, to the right to receive proper compensation if the federal government takes your private property. The right to remain silent is only one of these clauses, but for some reason, it’s the one that struck popular imagination—and language.
Popular use of “pleading the fifth”
In movies and books, the popular phrase to plead the fifth refers to one’s right to remain silent—in all kinds of situations, not necessarily legal ones. If you love CSI and Law and Order as much as I do, you're probably familiar with the Miranda warning that officers read to suspects as they cuff them. They have the right to remain silent, refuse to answer questions, and can consult an attorney before speaking to the police at all.
We started using the term colloquially in the 1950s as criminal hearings and investigations became more and more televised (like this famous congressional hearing with Martin Shkreli). Suspects in various crimes have used the fifth amendment to answer (or not answer, if you will) potentially incriminating questions. This exposed the public to the expression, so much so that it made it to popular crime novels, TV shows and movies in the US.
On the Chappelle's Show, comedian Dave Chappelle turns drug dealer who pleads the fifth, the 'fif' and even the 'fisif' for any question asked by the senator.
A more dramatic example can be found in the 2006 movie Miss Sloane, where we can see Jessica Chastain's powerful performance as a fierce lobbyist defending her case in a congressional hearing.
How to use “plead the fifth” in a sentence
In recent years, many have used the phrase plead the fifth metaphorically (thank God!) when we simply don't want to answer an uncomfortable question, just like in these painful scenarios:
Coworker: Did you take my lunch from the fridge?
You: Uh… err… I plead the fifth!
Mom: At what time did you come home last night? Wasn't it way past your curfew?
Teenager: I'd have to plead the fifth on that one, mom.
In a nutshell
While the fifth amendment includes several different clauses, the one we mostly refer to is your right to remain silent and avoid self-incrimination. Now that you know what it means, try using it as a line of defense in sticky situations. You might get a stink eye in return, but at least you're in the clear. For now.
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Yuval Merynger, Knowledge Base Writer at Wix
Passionate about Jeopardy, The Kardashians, and bizarre true crime documentaries.