A wry view of life for the world-weary

Tag Archives: Thomas Carlyle

What Is The Origin Of (159)?…

The Third World

I have always considered the term third world to be a rather condescending and patronising description of countries we deem to be less economically developed than ourselves or having developing rather than developed economies. Swathes of Africa, Asia and Central and Latin America languish under this sobriquet. But I had never really considered how this description had come about or, while I am thinking about it, what or is the Second World.

In tracing the origin of this phrase we start with a political pamphlet, written in January 1789 by Abbe Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes, entitled Qu’est-ce que le tiers-état?, translated as what is the third estate?  This pamphlet, which went some way to stoke up the flames that led to the French Revolution later that year, sought to show that the common people of France, the third Estate, were a complete nation in their own right and did not need the dead weight represented by the first and second estates, the clergy and nobility, thank you very much. Sieyes posed three hypothetical questions; what is the third estate? Answer, everything. What has it been hitherto in the political order? Answer, nothing. What does it desire to be? Answer, something. The rest is history, as they say.

We now fast forward, still in la belle France, to 14th August 1952 and an article published in L’Observateur in which the demographer, Alfred Sauvy, wrote, “Ce Tiers-Monde, ignore, exploite, meprise comme le Tiers-Etat.” By Tiers-Monde Sauvy meant those poor countries, particularly in Africa, Asia and Latin America, which were neither within the capitalist nor the communist blocs but were oppressed, downtrodden and exploited like the sans-culottes. Perhaps their time would come?

In the early 1960s Sauvy’s rather handy descriptor was taken up by economists and politicians in Britain and the United States. This, of course, prompted the question as to whether there was a need for the corresponding terms of First and Second Worlds. The first world duly appeared in 1967 to describe those countries which were based on the capitalist model of high-income market economies such as Britain and the United States. The second world came along a tad later, 1974 to be precise, to describe those relatively wealthy Communist states or countries which had ventrally planned economies. Neither term seems to be as popular and enduring as Sauvy’s Third World.

In Britain, of course, we like to be a bit different and have four, if not five, estates. God, according to John Wyclif in his Works of 1380, ordained that there be three estates – the clergy, the barons and knights and, finally, the commoners. John Aylmer, Bishop of London, transferred the holy estates to those which were necessary to enforce legislation, in other words the Crown, the House of Lords and the House of Commons. Thomas Carlyle, in On Heroes and Hero Worship, attributed the description of a Fourth Estate, the press, to Edmund Burke in 1787. He reports, “Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.”   The Fifth Estate, according to the eponymous film of 2013, refers to the online media. So there we have it.


What Is The Origin Of (132)?…

Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water

This is a curious expression and when used, it is intended to convey an admonition – in your haste in getting rid of something unpleasant and undesirable, don’t mistakenly eject something that is of value. Harassed parents of infants may demur, but, of course, the baby is what is valuable. The development of internal plumbing and fixed bathroom fittings make this warning somewhat otiose these days but it makes for an entertaining figure of speech.

The phrase appears to be German in origin and first made its printed appearance in 1512 in Thomas Murner’s Narenbeschworung which translates as Advice to Fools. Whether this was a hazard facing Teutonic tots or not is not clear but the title of Murner’s meisterwerk and the fact that it is a satire suggests that he was writing with his tongue firmly in his cheek. Whatever the rationale behind using the phrase, it became popular, its most usual formulation being das Kind mit dem Bade ausschutten.

A variant appeared in Sebastian Franck’s book of proverbs, Spruchvorter, published in 1541. He illustrated the proverb by citing someone sending an old nag to the knacker’s yard but omitting to take the saddle and bridle off first – an unexpected bonus for the knacker. The astronomer, Johannes Kepler, wrote in his Tertius Interveniens, published in 1610, “this is a caution, lest you throw out the baby with the bath water.

The phrase didn’t appear in Blighty until the middle of the 19th century when Thomas Carlyle used a rather clumsy rendition of the proverb in his article in the Fraser magazine in December 1849 which then became a pamphlet four years later. “The Germans say you must empty out the bathing-tub”, he wrote, “but not the baby along with it….How to abolish the abuses of slavery, and save the precious thing in it: alas, I do not pretend this is easy”. The precious thing in this instance is the slave – hardly a statement which would resonate with our sentiments today.

In the English speaking world the phrase didn’t reach a degree of popularity until the early 20th century and this may well be down to George Bernard Shaw’s usage in the preface to Getting Married, published in 1911. There he wrote, “we shall in a very literal sense empty the baby out with the bath”.  And there we have it.

I may be accused of casting aspersions about Carlyle’s attitude to slaves and slavery. When we cast aspersions we criticise someone or something, their ability and there is a sense that the allegations may not be entirely fair and are certainly made by innuendo rather than directly. What is interesting about this phrase is the word aspersions whose root comes from the Latin verb aspergere, meaning to sprinkle. An aspersion was the ritual sprinkling of water and in the Roman Catholic Church was a form of baptism.

By 1749, however, there had been a complete volte-face in its meaning. Instead of sprinkling something beneficial, the sense is that we are showering someone with damaging statements or, possibly, false accusations. It appears in this sense Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones; “I defy all the world to cast a just aspersion on my character; nay, the most scandalous tongues have never dared censure my reputation”.

Is it too fanciful to think this change in meaning is a consequence of the Reformation and the consequent fall from grace of all things Catholic? I wonder.