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First, second and third worlds

Q From Jean Pyle: The expression third world country usually means an underdeveloped one. What would first world and second world countries be, and how did the designations come about?

A These expressions were born in the Cold War era. Because of their numbering, it’s reasonable to assume that they were coined in that order, or at least all at once. However, third world came first, and the other two were created later.

Third world was coined in French (le tiers monde) by the population expert Alfred Sauvy, to refer to those poor countries, especially in Latin America, Africa and Asia, which were aligned with neither the communist nor the capitalist blocs. It appeared in an article in L’Observateur on 14 August 1952: “Ce Tiers-Monde, ignoré, exploité, méprisé comme le Tiers-État” (“That Third World, ignored, exploited, scorned, like the Third Estate). He created it with a nod to a famous pamphlet by the Abbé Sieyès in January 1789 about the Third Estate, le Tiers-État, one of the classes in the Estates-General, a pamphlet that was influential in the lead-up to the French Revolution later that year. The Third Estate was the commons or the ordinary people, the First Estate being the clergy and the Second Estate the nobility (the English term Fourth Estate, the press, came from this classification by analogy some decades later).

Third world was taken up in translation by economists and politicians in Britain and the United States in the early 1960s. By analogy, first world and second world were later coined from it in English, being recorded respectively in 1967 and 1974. The former was a collective term for the developed countries that were based on a capitalist model of high-income market economies, of which the USA is the principal example. This was contrasted with the second world, the relatively high-income Communist countries or those with centrally planned economies in which the government owns the means of production; here the USSR was the prime case. Neither term was as widely used as third world; both have lost popularity since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 except in historical contexts, though the phrase first world countries for the industrialised nations is still fairly common.

As most third-world countries were poor or relatively undeveloped, the term has since shifted in sense somewhat to refer especially to countries with those characteristics, though the formal term for them has progressively become euphemised to developing countries and later still to less economically developed countries.

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Last modified: 26 February 2005.