Second World Countries ?

If industrialized and technologically advanced (and resource hogging) nations like the U.S. and Japan are First World countries, and poor, undeveloped countries whose governments suffer violent overthrows roughly every week are Third World countries, then what’s a Second World country?

Are there exact specifications for a nation’s status in this respect, or are these just vague labels with no real meaning?

Depends who you are asking, but it’s pretty much a Cold War invention.

The most common use of the term has to do with first world countries being the Western-aligned industrialized countries, and the second world being Soviet-aligned industrialized countries. The third world is just as you say.

However, the Great Helmsman Chairman Mao also used the term third world (if you take liberalities with translation). He saw the first world as being the superpowers, the second world as being those surrounding the superpowers, and the third world as those which separate all those countries, more usually called the Intermediate Zone. His vision was for the PRC to be the leader of said zone.

I’m agreeing with Erik, but expanding a bit.

The designation of First, Second, etc World was originally a mimicking of the French thought of First, Second, Third, and Fourth Estates (from the 1700s, IIRC.)

First World was the developed capitalist countries. Second World was the developed Communist countries (USSR et al.)

Third World was developing countries, would include places like Brazil and the Philippines. Fourth world was undeveloped countries, and would include places like Rwanda and Bangladesh. However, there was resistence to that classification, because the “fourth world” countries thought they were being classified as hopeless. Thus, the categories of third and fourth world were combined to Third World to mean the under- and un-developed countries.

The designation is now largely meaningless since there aren’t any Second World countries (one could make arguments for China and Cuba, but … However, the terminology lingers.

Just a quick nitpick, CKDextHavn, because you are so rarely mistaken:

There are only three “estates”: the fourth is sort of a joke that has become a term for the press. In theory, the three estates are three groups, each with distinct responsibilities that are vital for the state as a whole. the first estate is, of course, the clergy, who keeps God happy–very important. Second is the nobility, which runs the country and, more important, beats up invaders. The third estate is everyone else, who grow the food, something that the upper classes did recognize as important. The idea behind this scheme was that each of these groups deserved some say in government, although the form of that participation and the optimim ratio of influence between the estates was a subject of hot debate.

The fourth estate is the press. The joke here is that they also have a considerable say on what happens because of their control over what people think HAS happened, and their ability to print editorials and such. The first three estates are a sort of universal construction; all societies have people in charge of fighting, of keeping god happy, and of procuring food. The press, on the other hand, is one of the hallmarks of the modern (post 1500) world.

I also have never heard of the term 4th world countries used. There was talk a while back about splitting up the underdeveloped nations and, as a previous post says, it was nixed for that reason. Shortly after they changed the terminology from underdeveloped to developing.

Matter of fact there were quite a few jokes from TV shows in the late 70’s where the charachter would say “Jeans made in an underworld country.” Then it would get a laugh. See they meant underdeveloped. Well it was funny at the time.

Blast! I’m having trouble finding my source, however:

My memory of the First, Second, Third world terminology is that it originated with an Indian statesman/politician (probably at the U.N. unless it was something he published).

It was in the early 1950’s and he objected to the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. always defining the world as if theirs were the only two possible positions to hold. He claimed that there was a third world made up of the (mostly poor) non-aligned nations.

The Yank and British presses immediately dubbed ourselves the First World (couldn’t let the Rooskies have the title) and Third World gradually came to be associated with poverty instead of non-alignment.

If I can find a source, I’ll be back. If someone disproves my memory, I’ll just go sulk somewhere.


Ah ha! I found it in the OED. Unfortunately, it’s in French and I am not exactly sure where all the proper names fit. I can’t establish that it was an Indian who couned the term, however, it is reported first in a 1956 reference to a conference held in April, 1955, in which 29 nations of Africa and Asia identified themselves as a “Tiers Monde” that was not aligned with the two “blocs”.


It’s interesting that, with the end of the Cold War, the Second World seems to have split quite neatly along the border of the old Soviet Union. Ex-Soviet Republics seem to fit neatly into the traditional Third World, with terrible crime rates, hyperinflation, and viscious border wars. The Central European countries, possibly excepting Rumania and Slovakia, seem like ordinary First World nations.

So now, I might still divide the world into three big groups, but I wouldn’t slap ordinal numbers on them any more. Now, I’d say you’ve got the Techno-Industrial countries (European Union, G7, Taiwan, South Korea, etc.), the Transitional countries (Russia and most ex-Soviet Republics, PRC, ASEAN, South Africa, wealthy Arab countries, and maybe some of the Latin American countries like Chile and Argentina), and the rest (and I can’t think of a name for them that would be both informative and PC).

By calling the intermediate group “transitional”, it leaves it to your imagination to decide what kind of transition is going on…

Any similarity in the above text to an English word or phrase is purely coincidental.

Tom, my guess is that the Indian statesman you are refering to is Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964) who was a major figure in the Indian independence movement and India’s first Prime Minister. Nehru, like Mao, Nasser, and Tito, attempted to forge a coalition between the various countries of the world which were not already aligned with the United States or Soviet Union.