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

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and veers away from the original usage of the terms, which were coined during the Cold War as part of a rough—and now outdated—model of geopolitical alliances.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 Do We Call a Leg Cramp a Charley Horse?

If you’re unlucky enough to have experienced a charley horse—a painful muscle spasm or cramp in your leg—then you may have found yourself wondering what this nonsensical phrase even means. Who is this Charley character? Where did he come from? And what does he know about my pain?

Like the words flaky and jazz, this term likely entered the language from the baseball field. While the idiom’s etymology isn’t 100 percent certain, archived newspaper articles suggest it was coined by a baseball player in the 1880s. We just don’t know which player said it first, or why.

According to a January 1887 article in the Democrat and Chronicle, the phrase was well-known to baseball players at the time—but to the average person, charley horses were as enigmatic as “an Egyptian hieroglyphic.” That year, charley horses were mentioned in a slew of newspapers across America, and some attempted to tackle the phrase’s murky origin. “Nearly every sporting journal gives a different version as to how the term charley horse originated in baseball circles,” the Oakland Daily Evening Tribune reported at the time.

The likeliest tale, according to the paper, centered around John Wesley "Jack" Glasscock, a shortstop who at the time was playing for Indianapolis. At some point a few years earlier, the player had strained a tendon in his thigh during a game and afterwards went home to his farm, where his father looked after a lame old horse called a "Charley horse." When the senior Glasscock saw his son limping along, he reportedly exclaimed, “Why, John, my boy, what is the matter; you go just like the old Charley horse?” John supposedly shared the funny turn of phrase with his teammates, and from there it spread. Similar accounts were reported in other newspapers, but they were attributed to various other players.

Other reports say the phrase has nothing to do with a live animal, but rather the fact that an injured player, while running, resembles a rocking horse or a child riding astride a wooden hobby horse.

The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary by Paul Dickson details a few other theories. In two versions of the same basic tale, Orioles or Chicago Cubs players went to the races and bet on a horse named Charlie who "pulled up lame in the final stretch." The next day, a player pulled a tendon in his leg and was said to resemble “our old Charlie horse.”

Alternatively, its origin may relate to an old workhorse that was tasked with pulling a roller across the infield. “Often in the 1800s, old workhorses kept on the grounds of ballparks were called Charley. The movements of the injured, stiff-legged ballplayers were likened to the labored plodding of these old horses, and the injury itself eventually became known as a ‘charley’ or ‘charley horse,'" Tim Considine wrote in 1982's The Language of Sport.

It also appears that charley horse originally implied a much more serious injury—or perhaps there was a bit of hysteria surrounding a condition that seemed new and scary in the late 19th century. The Democrat and Chronicle described a charley horse as a “giving way of one of the small tendons of the leg” and said an injured baseball player might need an entire season to recover. Another article from 1887 said ballplayer George Van Haltren’s relatives were worried he would get a charley horse, “although they do not know what that is.” He was said to have been “very fortunate” because he had “not yet encountered the terrible charley horse.”

For comparison, now says charley horses “are generally treatable at home” by stretching, massaging, or icing the afflicted area, although the muscle pain can linger for up to a day in some cases. So there you have it. We may never know the exact etymology of the charley horse, but the next time you get a sharp pain in your leg, you can thank an old-timey ballplayer for making your struggle sound so silly.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at

What's the Difference Between Straw and Hay?

The words straw and hay are often used interchangeably, and it's easy to see why: They're both dry, grassy, and easy to find on farms in the fall. But the two terms actual describe different materials, and once you know what to look for, it's easy to tell the difference between them.

Hay refers to grasses and some legumes such as alfalfa that are grown for use as animal feed. The full plant is harvested—including the heads, leaves, and stems—dried, and typically stored in bales. Hay is what livestock like cattle eat when there isn't enough pasture to go around, or when the weather gets too cold for them to graze. The baled hay most non-farmers are familiar with is dry and yellow, but high-quality hay has more of a greenish hue.

The biggest difference between straw and hay is that straw is the byproduct of crops, not the crop itself. When a plant, such as wheat or barley, has been stripped of its seeds or grains, the stalk is sometimes saved and dried to make straw. This part of the plant is lacking in nutrients, which means it doesn't make great animal fodder. But farmers have found other uses for the material throughout history: It what's used to weave baskets, thatch roofs, and stuff mattresses.

Today, straw is commonly used to decorate pumpkin-picking farms. It's easy to identify (if it's being used in a way that would be wasteful if it were food, chances are it's straw), but even the farms themselves can confuse the two terms. Every hayride you've ever taken, for example, was most likely a straw-ride.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at