There's a First World. There's a Third World. What's the Second World?

xmocb/iStock via Getty Images
xmocb/iStock via Getty Images

We often hear about the plights of the Third World, and most of us have our share of First World problems. But is there something in between—a Second World?

There sure is: the Commies (and now former Commies).

Today, people use the terms First or Third World to rank the development of countries or the strength of their economy. This is a pretty recent development, and veers away from the original usage of the terms, which were coined during the Cold War as part of a rough—and now outdated—model of geopolitical alliances.

The Cold War and the creation of NATO (a military and collective defense alliance formed by the U.S. and its western allies) and the Warsaw Pact (a defense treaty between several communist states in Eastern Europe) roughly divided the major world powers into two spheres with differing political and economic structures—east versus west, communist versus capitalist, the U.S. versus the USSR—with the Iron Curtain in between them.

In 1952, the French demographer Alfred Sauvy coined the term “Third World” to refer to everyone else, the countries unaligned and uninvolved with either side of the Cold War division. With the naming of the Third World, it followed that the Cold War blocs should get numbered, too. The democratic, capitalist countries within the Western sphere of influence became the “First World." The communist-socialist states that were part of or allied with the USSR became the "Second World."

Later, the term "Fourth World" was coined to refer to ethnically or religiously defined populations living within or across national boundaries, nations without a sovereign state, and indigenous groups that are nomadic, uncontacted or living outside of global society.

The Worlds Today

At the end of the Cold War, the three worlds model (not to be confused with Mao Zedong’s differently structured Three Worlds Theory) took on more of an economic context, rather than a geopolitical one. The First World now usually refers to Western, industrialized states, while the Second World consists of the communist and former communist states. The Third World still encompasses “everybody else,” mostly in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, and tends to be a catchall for “developing nations” that are poor, less technologically advanced, dependent on the “developed countries,” or have unstable governments, high rates of population growth, illiteracy and disease, a lack of a middle class, a lot of foreign debt, or some combination thereof.

Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?

iStock/bonchan
iStock/bonchan

The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

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Why Are Poinsettias Associated with Christmas?

iStock
iStock

Certain Christmas traditions never seem to go out of style. Along with wreaths, gingerbread cookies, and reruns of A Christmas Story sits the poinsettia, a red-tinged leafy arrangement that’s become synonymous with the holiday. Upwards of 100 million of them are sold in the six weeks before December 25.

Why do people associate the potted plant with seasonal cheer? Chalk it up to some brilliant marketing.

In 1900, a German immigrant named Albert Ecke was planning to move his family to Fiji. Along the way, they became enamored of the beautiful sights found in Los Angeles—specifically, the wild-growing poinsettia, which was named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, the U.S.-Mexican ambassador who first brought it to the States in 1828. Ecke saw the appeal of the plant’s bright red leaves that blossomed in winter (it’s not actually a flower, despite the common assumption) and began marketing it from roadside stands to local growers as "the Christmas plant."

The response was so strong that poinsettias became the Ecke family business, with their crop making up more than 90 percent of all poinsettias sold throughout most of the 20th century: Ecke, his son Paul, and Paul’s son, Paul Jr., offered a unique single-stem arrangement that stood up to shipping, which their competitors couldn’t duplicate. When Paul III took over the business in the 1960s, he began sending arrangements to television networks for use during their holiday specials. In a priceless bit of advertising, stars like Ronald Reagan, Dinah Shore, and Bob Hope were sharing screen time with the plant, leading millions of Americans to associate it with the holiday.

While the Ecke single-stem secret was eventually cracked by other florists—it involved grafting two stems to make one—and their market share dwindled, their innovative marketing ensured that the poinsettia would forever be linked to Christmas.

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