Third-World Blues

Floridians waiting to vote. Credit: the Associated Press

Judging from a spate of recent references, we may soon reach the point where, to paraphrase Walt Kelly, we have met the third world and it is us.

This trend vigorously penetrated my consciousness via press coverage of the ridiculously long voting lines for the presidential election in many areas around the country. A Floridian who was turned away after waiting two hours to cast her vote in early voting told The Miami Herald, “This is America, not a third-world country.” Former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman said on MSNBC, also in reference to Florida, “I’ve led delegations around the world to watch voting, and this is the kind of thing you expect in a third-world country, not in the United States of America.” As Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York traveled the city on Election Day, he encountered many inefficiencies and delays. “I kept hearing, ‘What’s this? A third-world county?’” he said. The Guardian, covering the scene in Florida, quoted unnamed observers as calling the situation (the italics are mine) “worse than a third-world country.”

The comparison may have been so popular because it was fresh in people’s minds from Superstorm Sandy, which hit the East Coast barely a week before the vote. That event and its aftermath yielded these quotes:

  • A New Yorker who was barely able to fill his gas tank told the Associated Press: “We’re a gallon away from turning into a third-world country.”
  • “Oh my gosh, it’s horrible,” a Staten Island woman said on a New York radio station. “I drove around yesterday and I’ve never seen anything like this before in my life. It’s like a third-world country,”
  • The Dutch photographer whose New York magazine cover shot showed Manhattan half in darkness, half illuminated, said in an interview: “It was the only way to show that New York was two cities, almost. One was almost like a third-world country where everything was becoming scarce. Everything was complicated. And then another was a completely vibrant, alive New York.”
  • A man who had to endure extended power outages told The New York Times he was “living in a third-world country called Teaneck, N.J.”

Not surprisingly, the TWC (third-world comparison) predates both Sandy and the 2012 election. Before the storm, of the 20 most recent times the phrase third-world country had appeared in the Times, dating back to November 2011, only six were in reference to the actual third world, and fourteen were applied to such places as Hawaii, Greece, Ohio, and Hartsfield Airport in Atlanta, about which a frequent business traveler complained, “It’s too noisy and too crowded and everything takes too long. It’s like a third-world country without the charm.”

One Times article mentioned a 1982 quote from Alan Clark, a Conservative member of Parliament in Britain, whom I suspect may have launched the TWC into the rhetorical big leagues. After Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, Clark remarked to his wife (he reported in his diary, subsequently published):  “It’s all over. We’re a third-world country, no good for anything.”

The OED reports that third world was coined in 1952 by the French demographer Alfred Sauvy, who referred to countries aligned with neither the capitalist (first world) nor the Communist (second world) blocs as tiers monde. The OED doesn’t show an English use of the phrase till 1963 (in The Economist), by which time it had acquired its current meaning: “the underdeveloped or poorer countries of the world, usu. those of Africa, Asia, and Latin America.” Two years later, C.L. Sulzberger published a book called Unfinished Revolution: America and the Third World.

From the get-go, third has had the most rhetorical pop of the three worlds. The Google Ngram graph below shows the relative frequency of third-world country and first-world country since 1968. (Second-world country did not appear in the database.)

Use of “third-world country” (red) and “first-world country” (blue) in English, 1968-2008

First world has gotten a boost in recent years through the brilliant notion of “first-world problems.” They are collected on various humorous Web sites, including this one, which is dedicated to the idea that “It isn’t easy being a privileged citizen of a developed nation.” Recent examples include “The division of labor between my ‘wearing to the club’ T-shirts and my ‘cleaning house/working out’ T-shirts is becoming muddled” and “I’m overscheduled for Comicon.”

Another Web site lets you create your own caption for a “First-World Problems” meme. It’s fun; everyone should give it a try. Here’s mine.



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