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I've always thought of the 'first world' as countries with modern technology and science, proper education, viable economies, and freedom from other social issues which allows individuals to enjoy a higher standard of living. In short the sort of country that would have general similar standards of living as the US or England. By my personal definition, which seems to be the way most use the term within the US, places like Sweden, Japan, and pretty much all of the EU would count as a first world countries.

I've meanwhile thought of third world nations as place with severe poverty, poor education or technology, and often other social issues preventing them from modernizing like war, corruption, or famine.

However, I looked it up today and found out that Wikipedia disagrees with my personal definition: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_World. Essentially a first world nation is officially defined as "everyone the US liked during the cold war". Japan, meanwhile, is defined as a third world nation; which it definitely would not be under the definition I always used.

Is there a better term that actually defines what I thought of as a first or third world country? Preferable as non-derogatory as possible in the case of referring to a place as third-world? I know any term for a place with poverty will inevitably have a negative connotation, but if I want to discuss, for instance, the mortality rates of a disease in 'first world' vs 'third world' conditions (as I use to interpret them) to analyze the effectiveness of modern sanitation and medicine...what is a good clinical term to define such areas?

Related, Do other places outside the US use the terms first world and third world? if so how do they generally use them?

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    I think broad usage concurs with your original definition: first world means of a high standard of living, comparable to the US, Japan, Sweden, UK, etc. I don't think anyone would misunderstand you, especially not with the support of context. Don't sweat it. You're using the word correctly. – Dan Bron Jul 1 '15 at 17:56
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    Your own source lists Japan as first world. – deadrat Jul 1 '15 at 18:38
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    Post-occupation Japan was certainly part of the first world under the traditional definition; not only is it friendly with the U.S., but the two are treaty allies. – choster Jul 1 '15 at 19:08
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    Hm... I guess at least one American thinks "Africa" is a third world country. (Google if you don't know who). Seriously though, I have lived through most of the cold war period in the UK and never heard or read the term "second world" used anywhere. UK usage agrees with your "what you always thought" definition. – alephzero Jul 1 '15 at 20:22
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    @alephzero - At secondary school (in the UK, in the late 90s) I was taught that "second world" meant communist or ex-communist. I'm guessing this was in History lessons, but I'm not sure. I agree that I've never heard it used in any non-educational context though. – AndyT Jul 2 '15 at 9:12
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From my personal experience from conversations and reading, 'developed countries' is often used in the way that you understood first world.

Any country with progress in technology, health, etc. and the others are sometimes referred to as 'undeveloped' or 'developing' as in the case of India which is making strides to improve its status. As someone who has not left the U.S., I cannot speak for the second question regarding usage outside of the U.S.

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    +1. Undeveloped could be considered politically incorrect. Developing is better. – Tushar Raj Jul 1 '15 at 19:01
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Did you look through the whole Wikipedia article? There's a subsection titled "Variations in Definitions" that has this to say:

Since the end of the Cold War, the original definition of the term First World is no longer necessarily applicable. There are varying definitions of the First World, however, they follow the same idea. John D. Daniels, past president of the Academy of International Business, defines the First World to be consisting of "high-income industrial countries." Scholar and Professor George J. Bryjak defines the First World to be the "modern, industrial, capitalist countries of North America and Europe." L. Robert Kohls, former director of training for the U.S. Information Agency and the Meridian International Center in Washington, D.C. uses First World and "fully developed" as synonyms.

This "high-income industrial countries" usage seems to match the way you've been using the term.

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Industrialized probably has the most neutral connotation. Developed implies (at least to some) that other nations are culturally undeveloped.

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In Human Geography, More Developed Countries (MDCs) and Less Developed Countries (LDCs) are the generally agreed upon terms. These are relatively objective terms and do not imply condescension, although it is of course possible to take it one way or the other.

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You could even say things like agricultural, industrial, post industrial, etc. You can get very specific in your descriptions if you are talking about economic development.

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MEDC = "More Economically Developed Country" ~ "First World"

LEDC = "Less Economically Developed Country" ~ "Third World"

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  • Welcome to the site @Robin. I think this answer has been given already? – EleventhDoctor Jul 2 '15 at 11:55

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