by Hank Leukart
April 14, 2006

Where is the Third World and should I worry about space shuttle foam on the way there?

Does the phrase “Third World” mean anything?

UN Human Development Index map derived from a 2005 UN report; green indicates a more developed country; red indicates a less developed country

UN Human Development Index map derived from a 2005 UN report; green indicates a more developed country; red indicates a less developed country

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n Without Baggage essays about Southeast Asia, I used the phrase “third world” to refer to developing nations — but where did the phrase come from and which countries does it refer to, exactly? Without Baggage reader Laura asked me this question recently, and it perked my curiosity.

While I found slight differences in opinion about the phrase, all of the sources I checked agree that demographers coined the phrase during the Cold War to refer to nations that were not part of the two major opposing blocs — one led by the United States (the “first world”) and the other led by the USSR (the “second world”). Generally, the countries outside these two blocs were economically and technologically less developed than those in the first and second worlds. Today, the term is more often used (as I used it) to denote countries with a low UN Human Development Index, a quantitative index created by the UN to assess a country’s level of development.

Online encyclopedia Wikipedia — an “encyclopedia anyone can edit,” according to its own description (is that really something to brag about?) — writes that the term is “out of date, colonialist, othering, and inaccurate” and “is almost never used” in academia. Nevertheless, every other source I checked did not indicate that the term is politically incorrect, and the term is used repeatedly in hundreds of publications. In fact, the above description did not appear in Wikipedia until recently (February 2006) when some guy using the name “Robdurbar” added it.

MSN Encarta, another online encylopedia with paid editors, writes that the term “remains a useful label for a conglomeration of countries otherwise difficult to categorize.” The English-language gold-standard, the Oxford English Dictionary, cites many references to the phrase but does not indicate that it is out of date. The venerable New York Times has used the term almost 4,000 times since 1981 and 119 times in the past year with no apologies; the World Book and Columbia University Press encyclopedias define the term with no warnings about it being politically incorrect; and I found references to the term using Google Scholar in academic journals and books as recently as 2005.

While I can imagine why some scholars might be irked by the term (it tends to divide the world into two camps, “us” and “them”), based on my research, the term is still perfectly politically acceptable, despite “Robdurbar’s” editorializing.

More importantly, the problem with the term stems more from its ambiguity; as the world has changed over the past fifty years, it is no longer clear to which countries the term refers — oil-rich nations, such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Libya, new industrial states, such as Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore, and deeply impoverished nations, such as Haiti, Chad, and Afghanistan all have very little to do with each other. It seems naive and inaccurate to group all of these nations together with the phrase “third world.”

Therefore, under the assumption that ambiguity is the archenemy of good writing, “third world” is a term that in most cases should be avoided in favor of terms such as “developing nations” and “newly industrialized nations.” In fact, avoiding these generalizations and simply referring to countries or regions specifically is clearest.

Regardless of how you decide to use this phrase in the future, the third world — whoops, I mean the world’s impoverished nations — will probably benefit more from us worrying about how to help them cure diseases and poverty and less about the best way to refer to them. WB

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