The "Third World" is one of those phrases that seem to defy precise definition.

It apparently originated with the people who used to run many of those far-off places - the French.

According to William Safire, author of the Dictionary of Political Terms, the phrase tiers monde (third world) was born as a play on tiers etat (third estate). It was thus used to describe the relationship of the colonies to Mother France, just as tiers etat was used to capture the relationship of commoners to the monarchy.

By the 1940s, according to Safire, the French had extended their use of tiers monde to embrace generally the underdeveloped areas of the world.

Although some scholars apply the term to nations that describe themselves as politically "nonaligned" - those neither part ofthe Western alliance (First World) nor the Soviet bloc and China (Second World) - the phrase has increasingly come to refer to the world's economic "have not" countries.

The boundaries, however, remain far from obvious.

In grouping countries on the basis of income, the World Bank lists such Western European nations as Spain, Greece and Portugal as developing counties.

Even within what is generally accepted as the Third World, there is an enormous disparity in income levels. The term embraces Venezuela, where the annual per capita income is $2,570, as well as Bangladesh, where it is $110.

For statistical purposes, the World Bank divides developing countries into five groups.