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The Associated Press reported in November 2003 that Jim Cantalupo, the Chairman and CEO of the fast-food firm McDonald’s, had published an open letter to Merriam-Webster about the 11th edition of their Collegiate Dictionary, published in July 2003. He complained about the inclusion in that work of the word Mc Job, and for defining it as “low paying and dead-end work”.

The affairs of dictionary makers are rarely controversial. But it does occasionally happen that words, or their definitions, become contentious. And this isn’t the first time that Mc Job has been in the headlines. A report in the Independent newspaper in Britain in 1997 claimed that the Oxford English Dictionary had been advised on legal grounds not to include the word, though this never led to anything and the term is in the online OED.

There are several problems with Mr Cantalupo’s objections. Not the least of them, as Merriam-Webster was quick to point out, is that they don’t define the word in those pejorative terms, but use the phrase “a low-paying job that requires little skill and provides little opportunity for advancement”. They are not alone: the Fourth Edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, for example, says it is “A job, usually in the retail or service sector, that is low paying, often temporary, and offers minimal or no benefits or opportunity for promotion”. The online OED says: “An unstimulating, low-paid job with few prospects, especially one created by the expansion of the service sector”. There’s little that Mr Cantalupo can dispute here; however unflattering it might appear to be to his organisation, that is indeed what people mean by the term.

Critics might also argue that he should have complained five months earlier, when the Collegiate was first published. Actually, he’s more like 17 years too late. Mc Job appeared in the Washington Post in 1986, though it was the publication of Douglas Coupland’s book Generation X in 1991 that popularised it. In the decade since, it has spread around most of the world.

The job of dictionaries, their editors argue, is to reflect the way that the language is actually being used. Merriam-Webster rightly say that the word is in wide general use (not just on the Internet, as Mr Cantalupo asserts in his letter). They comment: “In editing the Collegiate Dictionary, we bear in mind the guidance offered by Noah Webster that the business of the lexicographer is to collect, arrange, and define, as far as possible, all the words that belong to a language, and leave the author to select from them at his pleasure and according to his judgment’”.

Mr Cantalupo also objects on the grounds that Mc JOBS is a registered trademark of McDonald’s used for the company’s training program for mentally and physically challenged people. McDonald’s has actually trademarked dozens of terms beginning in Mc, such as McDouble, McDrive, McExpress, McFamily, McFlurry, McHero, McKids, McKroket, McMaco, McMenu, McMusic, McNifica, McNuggets, McOz, McPlane, McPollo, McRib, McRoyal, McScholar, McSwing, and McWorld. This plethora of terms, and the determined attempt on the part of the company to associate Mc with McDonald’s in the public mind, has been all too successful.

A whole range of sarcastic or deprecatory Mc words has grown up. Examples include McPainting (an unoriginal, paint-by-numbers type of work), McTheatre (for hyped-up big-budget musicals that are low on musical and artistic quality), and McPolicy (a political policy which is mainly cosmetic). Another is McMansion, which entered the lexicon in Britain a decade ago as a derogatory term for modest new homes, the architectural equivalent of the hamburger (in the US, the term is instead used for pretentious, over-sized mini-mansions that have been squeezed on to urban building lots). Related to these is McDonaldisation, dating from about 1975, which the online OED defines in a carefully non-derogatory way as “The spread of influence of the type of efficient, standardized, corporate business or culture regarded as epitomized by the McDonald’s restaurant chain. More widely: the spread of the influence of American culture”. This spread might result, some say, in a McWorld.

One can’t help feeling that McDonald’s is on a loser, complaining about just one example of a widespread trend, especially one that has been stimulated by their own trademark practice. A famous libel case brought by the firm in the UK in the 1990s (the McLibel case) resulted in the term McCensorship being widely used. I’m watching for it to reappear.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.

Page created 22 Nov 2003; Last updated 12 Dec 2004