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I’d like some clarification on the use of these three words. First-rate has positive connotations and its meaning is manifest, but the meanings of second-rate and third-rate are relatively muddy in comparison.

I know that both of them have negative connotations, and that third-rate is even more forceful in the claim it’s making than is second-rate, but when would it be appropriate to use either?

Is second-rate a better choice of words when doing an explicit comparison like

Prof A is better than Prof B.

When I say Prof B. is second-rate, I’m in fact implying that Prof. B is less than stellar, but not necessarily bottom of the barrel.

And conversely, is third-rate a better choice when making some sort of global claim — like for example, when I say Prof. C is third-rate, I’m implying that he’s the worst, worst professor I’ve ever encountered, and that when Prof. C is juxtaposed with any other professor, he will almost assuredly be found lacking in comparison.

If anybody has insight or clarification on all this, that would be great. And also, if anybody wants to try at the etymology of these three words, then by all means please do so, as I’d be really interested to find out more about their history.

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Interestingly, in BrE it's now possible to say something like "Prof B is definitely First Division - he may not be Premier League, but he's pretty good". Using OP's "rating" system wouldn't work at all for that - it would be ridiculous to say ?"Prof B is definitely second-rate - he may not be first-rate, but he's pretty good" –  FumbleFingers Jun 29 '13 at 21:00

4 Answers 4

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If you told Prof B that he was second-rate I don't think he'd take any comfort at all from the fact that at least you didn't label him third-rate.

For most purposes, first-rate means "excellent", and both second- and third-rate mean "not good". We actually use second-rate maybe 3-4 times more often than third-rate, but they don't normally both occur in the same utterance unless someone is (somewhat facetiously) saying that something else is even worse than something that was already labelled second-rate.

Historically speaking, third-rate has naval origins - within which context, third-rate ships often actually had the best compromise between sailing ability (speed, handling), firepower, and cost.

But in common parlance no-one thinks like that today - second- and third-rate aren't normally used to indicate different points on the scale of "less than first-rate".

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So I guess they're both interchangeable right? I've only encountered third-rate a couple of times. I was just wondering on how it's distinguished from second-rate. Quality explanation. Thanks! –  tuba09 Jun 29 '13 at 18:48
    
@tuba09: Yes - I would say "interchangeable" is a useful way of looking at second/third-rate. I'd just ignore M-W's "literal" definition of third-rate = worse than second-rate. In common parlance one or the other (usually second-rate, but certainly not both simultaneously!) is normally only used to mean worse than first-rate. Trying to make any more detailed comparison is like asking which is more "intelligent" out of smart, clever, and brainy, for example. –  FumbleFingers Jun 29 '13 at 20:17
    
Yea the somewhat opaque definitions given by M-W are what spurred me to pose this query. I don't think I've ever heard anybody use any of these words in casual conversation though, so I'll certainly never misuse them. But I guess I'll keep that in mind any time I encounter them in my reading. –  tuba09 Jun 29 '13 at 20:38
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"since if it was "average" you wouldn't usually bother to mention this at all" Good point. –  tuba09 Jun 29 '13 at 21:05
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@J.R.: Yeah. For most people, second-rate = crap, and third-rate is just an "intensified" version that basically means total crap. –  FumbleFingers Jun 29 '13 at 22:15

From the Merriam-Webster dictionary:

THIRD-RATE (adjective) Extremely low in quality or value : worse than second-rate. First known use was in 1814.

SECOND-RATE (adjective) Of second or inferior quality or value : mediocre. First known use was in 1669.

FIRST-RATE (adjective) Of the first order of size, importance, or quality. First known use was in 1671.

Taking into account the above definitions, I would say that it is not optimal to use these words in certain situations when doing an explicit comparison. Instead of third-rate you could use a word such as "tertiary," which implies the third position in a series of rankings, as opposed to "third-rate" which has primarily a negative connotation. This won't work for everything, but it's an idea.

[number]-rate, going by dictionary definitions, does not seem to imply ranking outside of a general measurement of good/mediocre/poor quality.

In your second example (regarding Prof. C) I believe calling him third-rate wouldn't necessarily claim that he is the worst professor, but rather a terrible one in general.

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Thanks for the clarification. I was looking at it as having a meaning more akin to that denoted by a superlative, but I guess that's not the case. –  tuba09 Jun 29 '13 at 18:51

I would suggest that you avoid using "second rate" and "third rate". Depending who you're talking to, you could refer to:

Prof A as "first-rate"
Prof B (perhaps) as "average"
Prof C in the terms you give, as "the worst professor you've ever encountered"

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Yea, I agree. The definitions given by M-W are less than satisfactory. Because if thought of in terms of degree, that would make a leap from 'third' to 'fourth' more likely, thus resulting in an infinite amount of gradations. –  tuba09 Jun 29 '13 at 20:43
    
I don't see anything wrong with calling Prof C a third-rate professor. There's enough consensus that the term equates to "markedly inferior." I do agree, though, that it would be a mistake to call Prof B "second-rate," particularly if the professor was merely "less than stellar." –  J.R. Jun 30 '13 at 0:00

While I bow to the dictionary definitions in the other answers, I have certainly heard finer gradations than they imply. I have heard third-rate university used in favorable(!) comparison to eighth-rate. (The latter is, I believe, beyond the ordinals of British naval practice.) Google shows a similar example of eighth-rate in a sports magazine.

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