Is there any derogatory or negative connotation with the words "developing countries" and "underdeveloped countries"? Should I avoid using them?

I read somewhere, don't remember where, that they have a colonialist connotation which might be disrespectful. Is that so? If so, what are some better word choices?


One common phenomenon for pejorative terms is what Steven Pinker called the euphemism treadmill. It's normal enough for terms which were once chosen to be neutral/non-pejorative to become pejorative with time. With fraught subjects, like the differences between places and cultures, this can happen a lot.

Developing and least developed to describe countries which have fewer/weaker human development indicators (the latter term more severe) remain in heavy use. Some people don't like them. I would not hesitate to use developing countries, but I would avoid anything like underdeveloped (which could make the countries sound deficient and implies a value judgement) or undeveloped (which makes the distinction binary).

A recently-growing term which is vague but avoids an appearance of hierarchy, monotonically, and value judgement is the global south. Sometimes, it might pay to be specific: poor countries, countries with child mortality rates above 1%, etc.

Not recommended is shithole countries.

  • So global south has no negative connotation? I wanted to ask about it too in my question but then I somehow forgot. – Sasan Dec 28 '19 at 19:22
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    @Sasan Any terms are going to be fraught, but the global south is intended to be politically correct. It is also less familiar than terms like developing or the now-discouraged third world. – Mike Graham Dec 28 '19 at 19:33
  • "Global South" is a rather confusing term, not at all self-explanatory. I guess people who need such a term in connection with their work or study would all be familiar with it, but I'd never heard it before. – nnnnnn Dec 29 '19 at 4:55
  • Hmm, not many countries in the literal global south, and neither Australia nor New Zealand would be considered undeveloped or underdeveloped societies. – Lawrence Dec 29 '19 at 5:36
  • @Lawrence Though the term can be a bit problematic in being defined with a geographical term rather than in more direct terms, I don't understand your claim. What do you mean "not many countries in the literal global south", doesn't that depend where we draw the line? About 1/4 of the nations on the planet are on or below the equator, if you're presuming that is where one would draw the dividing line, if one is to imagine it would be a line. (It isn't where you'd draw it, and it isn't a line.) en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_South#/media/… – Mike Graham Dec 29 '19 at 5:51

When I was a lad at school back in the 50s, I remember “backward” countries becoming “underdeveloped” for fear of giving offence, but later “underdeveloped” was presumably perceived as giving offence, so they became “developing”.

The fact that the poster questions whether “developing” may be offensive shows that in this sort of thing you cannot win. You have two options: you can either crawl to try to placate the victim complex of the nationals of the country, or call a spade a spade. I have voted to close this question as subjective, but my subjective response is that if I lived in a backward country, as an intelligent individual, I would be insulted if someone patronized me by calling it anything else.

  • You have utterly misread the situation and the very nature of how language works. – Mike Graham Dec 29 '19 at 0:36
  • @MikeGraham — I’m devastated! I had thought my ignorance of the subject was only partial. – David Dec 29 '19 at 9:31
  • Your view that the question is about something subjective is subjective. I want to write a paper and want to know how acceptable is to use such words as underdeveloped. Of course, some might while others might not think it is acceptable. But my question is about what is widely believed, what the general trend is. And a good answer could be something like that of @MikeGraham . – Sasan Dec 31 '19 at 1:25
  • @Sasan — “You want to write a paper” Now you tell us! But in what journal, with what audience? And “what” is widely believed by that audience — whatever it may be — is a matter for social statisticians, not for linguistics. And if your paper is really for a journal, and appropriate for it, there must surely be papers on the same topic using terms acceptable to its audience. – David Dec 31 '19 at 8:32
  • @David In that sense, if a word x is commonly used or is idiomatic is also a matter for social statisticians, not for linguistics. – Sasan Dec 31 '19 at 8:49

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