This terminology was originally coined just after WWII with the “first world” countries being roughly all the countries that were aligned with the United States after WWII with more or less common political and economic structure (capitalists); the “second world” countries were all those that roughly aligned with the Soviet Union in terms of their political and economic structure (communists and socialists); the “third world” countries were just everybody else.
This “everybody else” meaning included an awful lot of countries that were underdeveloped or poor. Through time, this has given rise to the misconception that “third world” means only countries that are underdeveloped and poor, even though there were, and still are, many countries in this group that are very well developed and a few of them are among the wealthiest nations in the world.
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- The term “third world” appeared first in print, and was possibly coined, by French anthropologist Alfred Sauvy, in an article published in the French magazine L’Observateur, on August 14, 1952. His quote specifically was “Like the Third Estate, the Third World is nothing, and wants to be something.” The “Third Estate” were the commoners of France who, during the French Revolution, opposed priests and nobles who were the first and second estates, respectively. However, there is some contention on whether he in fact coined the term or if it had been previously coined by a coalition of political leaders, who had already been using “first world” and “second world” in their common speech.
- The commonly held correct terms to refer to poor or underdeveloped countries are “Developing World” or “Majority World”, which the latter kind of sounds like a fun amusement park ride and the former sounds like something fun to do in a video game. It’s no wonder these terms haven’t caught on with the masses over the incorrect usage of “third world”.
- In 1974, there was another similar term coined called “fourth world”, meaning to refer to ethnic nations that span nation-state boundaries.
- The terms “first world” and “second world” virtually disappeared from usage after the fall of the Soviet Union.
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