Q. Should the term “Fourth Estate,” as a collective noun for journalism and journalists, be capitalized?
A. Merriam-Webster specifies “often capitalized F&E” in its entry for the term. In citing 1837 as the first known use, M-W is likely referring to the term’s appearance in The French Revolution by Thomas Carlyle. Carlyle wrote “Fourth Estate,” but he capitalized lots of words that would remain lowercase today:
Alas, yes: Speculation, Philosophism, once the ornament and wealth of the saloon, will now coin itself into mere Practical Propositions, and circulate on street and highway, universally; with results! A Fourth Estate, of Able Editors, springs up; increases and multiplies; irrepressible, incalculable. New Printers, new Journals, and ever new (so prurient is the world), let our Three Hundred curb and consolidate as they can! (vol. 1, bk. 6, chap. 5)
This passage could almost be referring to today’s social media—which has been called a Fifth Estate in its role as an additional check on institutional power beyond the traditional press. The initial capitals, though optional, provide a helpful clue that these terms are being used in a special sense. So whereas general references to the historical concept can remain lowercased (“the three estates”), initial capitals are usually appropriate for referring to specific estates (“the Fourth Estate,” “the First and Third Estates”).