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.