The Fifth Estate

By Maeve Maddox

A movie about Julian Assange, the man who founded a website devoted to leaking information that governments wish to keep secret, is called The Fifth Estate.

Most modern speakers associate the word estate with various types of property, for example,

  • a grand house with extensive grounds
  • the assets left by a deceased person
  • a housing development

The word estate in the expression fifth estate originates from a much earlier use of the word:

An order or class regarded as part of the body politic, and as such participating in the government either directly or through its representatives.

The earliest reference to this meaning of estate in the OED is dated 1380 when John Wyclif asserted that people belong to three categories ordained by God: priests, knights, and the “commons.”

The concept evolved differently in different European countries, but the essential idea was to view society in terms of who had a voice in government.

In England, the three estates came to be defined as Lords Spiritual (high-ranking clergy like bishops), Lords Temporal (nobility), and Commons.

In France, the three estates were Clergy, Nobles, and Townsmen.

A few European countries, like Sweden, recognized four estates, but it’s the three-estate concept that explains the development of the English expression fifth estate,

A fact to keep in mind about the medieval third estate is that it did not include everyone who did not belong to the first two estates. The third estate was made up of wealthy landowners and merchants. The portion of the population that lacked rank or wealth lacked a political voice as well.

The term fourth estate was coined in the 18th century as a figurative expression to label the sector of the population that exists outside the circle of established political power.

Nowadays, the fourth estate has become a synonym for the Press, but in 1752, Fielding identified the fourth estate with “the Mob.” Various individuals and groups were referred to as “the fourth estate” before the term finally settled on the Press. Newspapers won the term because they were perceived as the voice of the politically or socially disenfranchised.

If newspapers have sold out and become a part of the Establishment, then strictly speaking, the coinage “fifth estate” is unncessary. The mantle should simply be taken from the traditional Press and passed on to the Internet.

However, maybe the term does represent something new. Perhaps the role of the fifth estate is not to provide everyone with a voice in government, but to provide a means of undermining government.

So far, the meaning of fifth estate remains blurry. The earliest reference to its use in the OED refers to the medium of radio and is dated 1932. In a 1955 reference, the fifth estate is equated with trade unions.

Only ten uses of fifth estate occur in the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) for the years 1990-2012. Six of those citations refer to the title of a television program.

The Assange movie will doubtless have the effect of turning fifth estate into a buzz word. How the term’s figurative meaning will evolve remains to be seen.

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16 Responses to “The Fifth Estate”

  • Matt Gaffney

    I’m not sure I fully understand how a discussion of the development and use of the term “fifth estate” can be easily and naturally included under the umbrella of “Daily Writing Tips.”

    Certainly writers’ understanding of rare terms so as not to misuse them is helpful. How often have we all heard the phrase “beg the question” arrogantly and pretentiously misused, particularly by radio and television journalists ranging from Fox News to NPR’s “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered”? As the French say, it’s worse than a mistake, it’s a blunder.

    The media are full of poorly educated writer-journalists eager to phrase-drop in the midst of breaking news; however, I infer that Ms Maddox might have a non-writing tip on her agenda. I suspect that because of one of her comments: “Perhaps the role of the fifth estate is not to provide everyone with a voice in government, but to provide a means of undermining government.”

    While Julian Assange’s legal difficulties seem to stem from his emotional immaturity, “undermining government” is certainly a great leap from what I think Assange intends.

    If the fourth estate embraces the press, i.e., journalists who work for newspapers, radio, and television, and if one accepts the notion that the fourth estate is now more or less a lapdog of the government, the nobility (read plutocracy), and the clerics (read theocracy), then the fifth estate logically comprises those who aren’t truly represented by estates one through four as well as those in estates one through four who don’t like the situation one damn bit.

    It could well be that one of the unavoidable side effects of an active, determined fifth estate could be the undermining the government, but to put forth the notion that the undermining of the government might be the raison d’être of the fifth estate is another thing altogether.

  • thebluebird11

    @Matt: I find this post fascinating and somewhat of a teaser (how will it all play out?), so whether it is on-topic or not for DWT doesn’t matter to me. However, I do believe that it is in fact very much on topic, because it’s discussing the etymology and usage of this phrase. If you’re focusing on the politics, especially as applied to the first 3 or 4 estates, I think you’ve missed the point of the post.

    The post is not prescriptive but descriptive, because the phrase itself hasn’t settled into one spot yet. It’s anybody’s guess as to when and where it will finally land, so I find that intriguing. Right now, you can use it to mean what you want, but someday you might not have that option. Carpe diem, and have a good one!

  • R. E. Hunter

    I just wanted to point out that “The Fifth Estate” is the name of a long-running Canadian news show, though it’s probably not known outside Canada. Presumably, they mean it to be something outside of the regular press.

  • Maeve Maddox

    Matt,
    Any response I could make to your criticism of this post could not improve on thebluebird11’s statement of its nature.

    My job at DWT is to write about English usage. I have found that if one of my discussions happens to draw on current affairs to make a point, at least one reader will accuse me of having a political agenda.

  • Maeve Maddox

    R.E. Hunter,
    Most of the references to “Fifth Estate” I found at COCA refer to the name of that Canadian news show.

  • Christian F.

    “Perhaps the role of the fifth estate is not to provide everyone with a voice in government, but to provide a means of undermining government.”

    In this case, is the only difference between the fifth estate and the third column that the former has originated from within national borders, rather than being introduced or influenced from without?

  • Stefano

    In Robin Moore’s 1973 book by the same name, the Fifth Estate described the connections between organized crime and national politics in the US. Moore also wrote the better-known “The French Connection”.

  • Ann

    Does the term fifth estate relate to the term fifth column? Are they connected?

  • Dale A. Wood

    I was ready to write something about the “necessity” now to write something about The Fifth Column and the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse. I am not impressed by this blurb about The Fifth Estate. Yes, I think that it was unnecessary.

    Then I came across Ann’s question about the Fifth Column.
    No, the Fifth Column does not have anything to do with the Fifth Estate, and also note that “Fifth Column” is a proper noun and it is capitalized.
    According to an online dictionary, the term “Fifth Column” stems from the Spanish Civil War: (originally) Sympathizers with General Franco in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War. The insurgents had four columns marching on Madrid and a “fifth column” of supporters already inside the city.

    Also, Fifth Columns are described in articles like this one from the Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fifth_column.
    I encourage you to use such articles whenever you are mystified by anything.

  • Dale A. Wood

    I stand somewhat corrected: many writers capitalize Fifth Column, but many do not. Still, I believe that it ought to be a proper noun.

    By the way, the great writer Robert A. Heinlein published a novel called The Sixth Column in about 1949. I have never read it, and I only found out about it today. According to the description, North America had been overrun by invaders from Asia, and the prospective Fifth Column had been subverted into cooperating with the invaders. Then there came into being the Sixth Column of true patriots.
    I believe that this is one of Heinlein’s novels that has become completely outdated, and it is probably not worth reading. This is quite unlike Heinlein’s novels like STARSHIP TROOPERS that are still part of the possible future and from which lessons can still be learned.

    Back in the 1950s, Heinlein also wrote novels like RED PLANET and SPACE CADET that pictured Mars as being inhabited by complex life forms (which we know it isn’t) and Venus as being habitable by people (which we know is impossible because of the extreme heat).
    I also miss the Mars of THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES by Ray Bradbury. That Mars was inhabited by intelligent life, but then that was wiped out by germs brought by human settlers.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    I was unclear about something, and I will correct that now.
    I should have written “the prospective Fifth Column of rebels against the invaders had been subverted into cooperating…”
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    I had also heard of the Fifth Estate in the United States as being organized crime – e.g. “the mob”, “the Mafioso”.
    D.A.W.

  • Attani

    Thank you. I was wondering about that term. I’m looking forward to the film but was confused about the whole “estate” thing and hadn’t researched it yet. Thanks again for doing the work of finding out about this title.

  • Mary

    Dale, that would be ‘mafiosi’ if you want the plural — lowercase ‘m’, according to Merriam Webster online. Or ‘Mafia’, if you want a collective noun, uppercase ‘m’.

  • Mary

    Hello, again, my friends — I would welcome a discussion on the difference between ‘subvert’ and ‘suborn’.

    Cheers,
    Mary

  • venqax

    Matt Gaffney: I don’t understand why you would NOT think an article about the meaning of the term in question was not precisely what this site is about. You answer your own question:

    Certainly writers’ understanding of rare terms so as not to misuse them is helpful.

    Moving on, I too wonder about associations between the terms Fifth Estate and Fifth Column. That seems almost double-entendre-ish when speaking of Assange.

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