Question: For a number of years now, I've been hearing references to "Third World" countries. Can you explain to me just what is meant by this expression?

- J. W., West Long Branch, N.J.

Answer: "Third World" is an English translation of the French "tiers monde," which first appeared in the 1950s. The term referred originally to a group of nations, especially in Africa and Asia, that were not aligned with either the communist or non-communist blocs, which were understood to constitute the other two "worlds." In these post-Cold War days, the Third World is often thought of more generally as "the aggregate of the underdeveloped nations of the world."

"Third World" was first recorded in English in 1963. Oddly enough, the phrases "First World" and "Second World" were not recorded until some years later. With no regard for numerical order, "First World" was the second phrase to appear, in 1967. It refers to "the highly developed industrialized nations often considered the westernized countries of the world." Our first evidence for "Second World" did not appear until 1973, with the meaning "the communist nations as a political and economic bloc."

People liked the concept so much they decided to take it a little further still, and so "Fourth World" entered the language in the late 1970s, meaning "a group of nations, especially in Africa and Asia, characterized by extremely low per capita income and an absence of valuable natural resources."

We have in addition a few scattered examples of "Fifth World," but this phrase has not yet become established with any clear meaning.

Question: Can you tell me about the word "teller" as in "bank teller"? How did "teller" become associated with a bank employee?

- I. B., Columbia, Md.

Answer: "Teller" is one of those words that has picked up a charming folk history to explain why a word normally associated with one activity (talking) should become connected with an unrelated activity (banking). According to the tale, the word developed out of a banking practice in England. In the early 1800s, records of loans and savings were notched on pieces of wood. These pieces of wood were called "tailles," a French word for "cuttings." The wood was then split, with one half going to the customer and the other half remaining at the bank. This enabled both parties to tally their accounts.

This explanation tags the French word "taille" as the forerunner of both "teller" and "tally." Unfortunately, however, the first use of "teller" in its banking sense occurred as early as 1480, nearly 400 years before the practice of wood-notching was employed in banking.

A more plausible (although less colorful) explanation of the origin of "teller" is that it is simply a combination of the word "tell" and the suffix "-er." The origins of "tell" have been traced to the ancient Germanic languages of northern Europe, and it seems that the forerunners of the word had senses meaning "to count" (a meaning which is still used in literary contexts) and "to tell" long before it became part of our language. In light of its history, using the word "teller" for "one who counts" (a bank teller) is actually quite logical.

Question: One of my wife's favorite activities is to go "antiquing." That, at least, is what she calls it. My question is, when did this newfangled verb replace good old-fashioned "shopping," and is it in your dictionary?

- G. B., Glastonbury, Conn.

Answer: In our Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, we enter and define the verb "antique" in the sense "to shop around for antiques." This sense is in fact very recent: we first noticed it only in 1971, though we're sure the activity existed long before that.

Shoppers were not the first people to use "antique" as a verb. An earlier sense, "to finish or refinish in antique style: to give an appearance of age to," was first spotted in 1923, in the British newspaper The Daily Mail, and continues to be used to this day.