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What's the origin of "Third World"? What are the first and second worlds?

January 1, 1984

Dear Cecil:

What's the origin of the term "Third World"? Some say Jean-Paul Sartre coined the phrase in his preface to Franz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth. Others dare to claim that Newsweek originated the term. No one seems to know for sure.

Dear P.:

The situation is pretty confused, all right, which is about par for the course in matters etymological. I've heard the phrase attributed to the French agronomist Rene Dumont, but the most convincing story credits French demographer Alfred Sauvy, who is said to have coined tiers monde in 1952. The archaic tiers is used instead of the modern troisieme to suggest a parallel to tiers etat, the Third Estate, which came into currency during the French Revolution. The Third World is thought to hold a position vis-a-vis the First and Second Worlds (the developed capitalist and Communist countries, respectively) comparable to that of the Third Estate (the commoners) with the First and Second estates, i.e., the clergy and the nobility.

The expression was used at a conference of African and Asian countries in Bandung, Indonesia, in 1955 and was the title of a book published by Sauvy's associates in 1956. It became the title of a journal in 1959 and from there passed into general usage in France. Eventually it made the leap into English. There has since been some suggestion that the Third World ought to be subdivided into the Third and Fourth Worlds, the Third consisting of countries that can legitimately be called developing and the Fourth those that are pretty much dead in the water. But the prospective Fourth Worlders have not been embraced this idea with much enthusiasm, for the obvious reason that it makes things sound more desperate than they care to admit.

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