Slang dictionary

plead the fifth

or plead the 5th or take the fifth

What does plead the fifth mean?

To plead the fifth means to refuse to answer a question, especially in a criminal trial, on the grounds that you might incriminate yourself.

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Where does plead the fifth come from?

plead the fifth
keep calm

The fifth in plead the fifth comes from the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which, among other rights, protects citizens from self-incrimination. The text of the Fifth Amendment is very simple: “No person…shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” This principle also underlies the Miranda rights, or “the right to remain silent.”

Pleading the fifth is an action that can be taken in court. It means you are invoking your Fifth Amendment right so you won’t be forced to testify against yourself. The Fifth Amendment gives a criminal defendant the right not to testify, and a witness at a criminal trial can plead the fifth while testifying in response to questions they fear might implicate them in illegal activity.

Pleading the fifth is sometimes regarded as proof of guilt, and therefore as an incriminating step. The logic runs something like, “If you’re not guilty, what do you have to hide?” However, the Supreme Court ruled that this isn’t necessarily the case, and that even if you’re innocent, inadvertent self-incrimination could occur under questioning.

Use of plead the fifth often refers to its legal sense, but in regular conversation, it can be a metaphor, often lighthearted, for a refusal to answer, commit to, or take action on something, as doing so might reveal guilt or be harmful to your self-interest.

While the Fifth Amendment was ratified in 1791, the phrase plead the fifth, shortened from plead the fifth amendment, took off in American English the 1950s.

Examples of plead the fifth

“The inquisitor may or may not have caught him lurking on tumblr and twitter, but pleads the fifth.”
invisiblelotus Tumblr (Janary 4, 2017)
“You should know that when i am inquired about it I will have to plead the fifth.”
PorkyG Serato (January 14, 2013)
“If you glimpse a slice of yourself in any of the fictional characters or situations, I plead the fifth and blatantly steal from the onetime Robert Zimmerman: Don’t think twice, it’s all right.
Ken R. Abell, Nightmares of Terror (2015)
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Who uses plead the fifth?

Plead the fifth can sometimes be formulated as take the fifth. Although the phrase is American in origin, it’s migrated in casual conversation to other parts of the world, such as the United Kingdom, thanks to American media.

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This is not meant to be a formal definition of plead the fifth like most terms we define on Dictionary.com, but is rather an informal word summary that hopefully touches upon the key aspects of the meaning and usage of plead the fifth that will help our users expand their word mastery.