"Hi," said the telephone voice.
"Hi," replied mine.
"Got a minute for a question?"
"If it's quick."
And with that, I started stubbing my historical toe.
"My name is Marvella Crabb, and I'm a graduate student at American University," the voice went on. "I'm surveying a lot of the press around Washington and I'd like to include you. Where does the phrase 'Fourth Estate' come from?"
"Um, uh, well," I said, playing for time, hunting through my memory. Somehow, back in history class, I had known it would come to this.
"It comes from the French Revolution, I'm pretty sure. It means the press, of course. The other three estates are the church, government and opposing political parties.
"How'd I do?"
The fact is, I did rotten. I was wrong in all but a couple of particulars. But in exchange for allowing her to see how dumb I was, I got Marvella Crabb to swear she'd show me the final results of her survey.
Swear she did, and show me she did. All I can say is that the Media Marvels of Washington had better head back to school. Marvella Crabb sampled 13 wordsmiths from all walks of printed and broadcast life. The only one who hit the nail on the head was a Library of Congress information service researcher who didn't want his name used.
Here are some of the arrows that missed the mark.
Henry Hubbard, deputy Washington bureau chief, Newsweek: "It refers to pre-Revolutionary France and refers to royalty, the nobility and the commons."
Ray White, editor, Washington Journalism Review: "It goes back to some philosopher. He divided all human activity into three groups -- church, government and something else. Journalistic activities became the fourth because they deserved estate level."
William Hollyer, Fairfax County reporter, Journal Newspapers: "It goes back to 18th century America when the power was being divided up. I think Thomas Jefferson said it, meaning the clergy, military and nobles."
Sid Yudain, editor of the Capitol Hill newspaper, Roll Call: "The London press was the fourth estate." Then he asked for 10 minutes to see if he could remember the other three.
Do I hear you chuckling, smartypants? Then cover up the next two paragraphs and see if you can do better. No cheating.
The answer: British essayist Thomas Babington Macaulay coined the term in 1828 when he wrote: "The gallery in which the reporters sit [in Parliament] has become a fourth estate of the realm."
Although essayist Thomas Carlyle credits philosopher Edmund Burke with originating the phrase, both the Dictionary of Quotations and the Macmillan Book of Proverbs, Maxims and Famous Phrases say Carlyle was mistaken. There is no evidence of the phrase in Burke's work.
The other three estates: clergy, nobility and commoners.
I'm sure I speak for most of Washington's press corps when I say to Marvella Crabb: Do us a favor. Next time, ask us about Kemp-Roth, or Sadat-Begin. Looking bad is not the Fourth Estate's favorite sport.