The Real Meaning Of ‘First World’ And ‘Third World’

“We may be likened to two scorpions in a bottle, each capable of killing the other, but only at the risk of his own life.” —“Atomic Weapons and American Policy”, Foreign Affairs (1953)

In A Nutshell

The term “third world country” was coined shortly after World War II in the face of the Cold War. Contrary to popular belief, “third” doesn’t refer to the lowest economic third or economic status at all. “First world” refers to the US and its allies, the “second world” to the Soviet Union and its allies, and “third world” to all non-aligned countries.

The Whole Bushel

During World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union fought on the same side to prevent Hitler and the Nazis from continuing their genocidal path to world domination. However, once Hitler was eliminated, the economic and political differences between the two superpowers began to surface. The US and its allies formed NATO in 1949 while a few years later, the Soviet led Warsaw Pact aligned the communist countries in Eastern Europe.

Sensing the rift happening in the world, French historian and demographer Alfred Sauvy described all neutral nations as the “third world” in reference to the Third Estate of France. The Third Estate was made up of commoners and was therefore in no position to influence the debate between the First Estate (clergy) and Second Estate (nobles).
Many countries did not ally with either side and remained neutral. Some of these countries were former colonies or were without military or economic resources, essentially disregarded by the superpowers. However, some countries chose not to be officially involved. These countries include Finland, Switzerland, Sweden, Ireland, and Austria. Despite being economically stable and prosperous, these countries are counted as being in the Third World.

While technically under US protection after World War II, Saudi Arabia was a neutral party during the Cold War. Consequently, Saudi Arabia is classified as a third world country, even though Saudis enjoy a relatively high standard of living due to their oil exports.

Since the end of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet Union, the term “second world” has become defunct and the term “third world” has erroneously been applied to all poorer nations. The poorest nations are sometimes referred to as “developing countries,” but in recent years, many economists have determined that the economic development in these countries hasn’t contributed to the overall welfare of the people, and this term has lost some popularity as well. The term “majority world” is now the term du jour to describe the poor nations of the world since the majority of the world’s population lives in one of these countries.

Show Me The Proof

First, Second, and Third World
Alfred Sauvy (1898–1990)
Majority and Minority Worlds

  • Hillyard

    Interesting. The meaning of words can and does change over the years, the accepted meaning of the terms ‘first world countries’ and ‘third world countries’ has also changed. The first link seems to define third world countries both ways.

    • Chester

      Think of the word gay, prolly the biggest one.

      • Hadeskabir

        I think the word “faggot” is the one that changed the most.

        • Hillyard

          Yes, calling someone a bit of pork offal or a branch never made sense to me.

          • or a cigarette…

          • Hillyard

            A Brit I ran into at Grafenwöhr asked me if I could spare a fag, ( I was smoking a cigarette at the time), I looked at him like he’d lost his mind and then he said “I mean a cig”. I laughed for ten minutes straight.

          • That was actually the first meaning of the word I knew.

          • lonelydisco

            Well, good for you.

  • I’cia( ❤ My Falcons)

    Interesting article ! Funny how meanings change over time!

  • Ubong

    Thanks knowledgenuts. This article is well appreciated by me (a minority from the a country in the majority world called Nigeria)!

  • Brp Goyo

    A bitch here in Listverse once called me a “Third World Monkey” after hearing I am from the Philippines. I slapped these facts in her face and played her a Dolly Parton song: Dumb Blonde.

    • Chester

      lol nicely done.

    • Hadeskabir

      O yeah, taught her a lesson!

    • Mabinogi

      She deserved it. I don’t know why but whenever a fellow country man gets insulted, or my country itself, I get mad and patriotism surfaces. I guess its just like it.

      • lonelydisco

        Patriotism is a strange thing. I remember meeting a Lithuanian. I’m from Guyana.

    • WhiteExodus

      Lol looks like she crawled back to her shell of ignorance where she came from.

    • lonelydisco

      Well, if you are monkeys, then you are adorable monkeys. And I concur, that chick-y is a dog.

  • 4ox

    Wasn’t it Mao Zedong that came up with the term?

    • Lori

      Yes, it was. I’m quite sure, since I studied Chinese History for 2 years in University. Definitely Mao.

      • 4ox


  • HowAnxious

    Interesting. The terms do change with time. Thanks for the information.

  • inconspicuous detective

    my question is…is it really necessary to change how we refer to something if the meaning of the word has changed over time naturally? i say no, not unless the circumstances are very unique. it doesn’t make sense IMO to shake up the language of a different group of people (which i would consider groups separated by at least a generation to be different) because the meaning of the word once meant something else.

    • It wouldn’t be necessary if the two groups lived apart and didn’t interact. In those circumstances there couldn’t be any misunderstandings because of semantic change. However, in the world we actually inhabit there are many different groups speaking to one another or, more accurately, to the world as a whole where differences in meaning can cause all sorts of problems. It makes sense to attempt to make sure everyone understands the current meaning of a word or phrase so that misunderstandings, misapprehensions, or misperceptions don’t happen.

      • inconspicuous detective

        you and i have had this dance before. i see language evolution as a necessary, unifying force. continuing to hold an old meaning to a word that has been adapted strips a bridge between many that, if burned, leaves a gaping hole where the two sides can meet in the middle.

        case in point cultures around the world have adopted words or phrases from other cultures because no word existed that matched the meaning of the adopted word. had we stuck strictly to the definition we had at the time, we wouldn’t have many commonly used words and phrases.

        • reread your original post on this, wherein you said it isn’t necessary to change how we use a word or phrase. Then reread my reply, wherein I said it is necessary. Now, are you’re saying it is and implying I said it isn’t?
          I’ve always maintained that language is a living thing. It grows and changes , or it dies.

          • inconspicuous detective

            sorry, my wording on it was confusing. my original post said that changing the meaning of a word that *naturally* had changed to mean something different over time is a bad thing to do. in other words, if the word chair today is something we sit on, but in a few years becomes any object with a flat surface and four legs (table), we shouldn’t fight to keep the original definition of chair around. this only works if it is a widespread enough change, and obviously won’t work for every single word out there.

            so yea, it’s a fact words change their meaning, it’s not necessary to fight to hold onto the old meaning.

  • Illuminati Recruitment Agency

    I guess Listverse never heard of the concept of semantic change. Words and terms change meanings. #rd World now means the poorer and less developed nations.

    • Molly Smith

      Like the current definition change of literally: “Used to acknowledge that something is not literally true but is used for emphasis or to express strong feeling.” Idiocracy, here we come.

      • ? “literally” now means not literally true?

        • Molly Smith

          Apparently. I guess enough people misused it so dictionaries started putting in the “alternative” meaning. I weep for the future.

  • Liege_Lord

    reminds me of Listverse’s article from 10/26/13 #10 “your probably in the 1%” there always is some small connection between knowledgenut articles and recent listverse or cracked ones. Still though, there is a difference here which I can appreciate, this is a good knowledge based article.

  • Anthony Jaymes Annis-Rastaette


    Too many people believe that the “third world” means poor!

    Switzerland is one (if not the) most wealthiest country in the world and yet it’s apart of the third world. It’s just that a lot of poor African countries are apart of the third world because none of them were allied with the US or the USSR!