David Fairhurst, a McDonalds vice president, has taken up the crusade started by the fast-food giants late CEO Jim Cantalupo, to get dictionaries to revise their definition of McJob. During its earlier campaign, McDonald's targeted American dictionary makers. That didn't work, so this time around they're going after the Oxford English Dictionary, a historical repository of half a million English words past and present.
The first print reference to McJob appears in the Washington Post in 1986. Five years later Douglas Coupland memorialized the word in Generation X as, “A low-pay, low-prestige, low-dignity, low benefit, no-future job in the service sector.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines McJobs as low-paying, requiring little skill, and providing little opportunity for advancement. The American Heritage Dictionary echoes this definition, and the Oxford English Dictionary includes “unstimulating” in the mix of descriptors referring to dead-end jobs in the “service sector.”
But according to the BBC, McDonald's says the definition is "out of date and insulting" and claims a survey found that 69% of the UK population agree it needs updating. The international hamburger giant wants to have it their way, redefining McJob as one “that is stimulating, rewarding … and offers skills that last a lifetime.”
[At a Chicagoland McDonald’s restaurant, a McDonald’s employee demonstrates some of the stimulating and rewarding on-the-McJob-skills that will last a lifetime. http://www.time.com/time/business/article/0,8599,1628391,00.html?xid=rss-topstories]
Merriam-Webster didn't comply with the McDonald's demands, just as it resisted 19th-century protests against the definition of the verb jew as ‘to cheat’ and the adjective jesuitical, meaning ‘given to specious argument.’ In 1997 a grass-roots protest insisted that Merriam-Webster drop the word nigger from the dictionary. That didn't happen either.
While it’s not the job of dictionaries to root out offensive language or change social attitudes, most lexicographers are careful to warn readers when words are venomous and demeaning. Racially-charged vocabulary is clearly marked “offensive” or “expressive of racial hatred and bigotry.”
Sometimes words are felt to discriminate against things as well as people. In 2005 the British Potato Council staged demonstrations outside Parliament and at the Oxford English Dictionary’s headquarters in Oxford, to get the dictionary to drop the term couch potato because it portrayed potatoes as unhealthy. The potato growers blamed couch potato, “a person who spends leisure time passively or idly sitting around, esp. watching television or videotapes,” for declining sales of fish and chips. But OED editors refused to bow to pressure and the definition stood unchanged.
Can you dig it? The couch potato protests of June, 2005, with Big Ben in the background [http://www.iran-daily.com/1384/2304/html/index.htm]
Responding to the current McJob protest, OED editors insisted that their bleak definition would stand, even after McDonalds, willing to spend money to fight dictionaries but not to raise the minimum wages of its workers, put pressure on the director of the Chamber of Commerce, TV star David Frost, and on conservative members of parliament. In addition, McJobbers and burger buffs may sign a petition to support a revised definition of McJob by visiting a British McDonald's or going online at www.changethedefinition.com.
McDonald’s defense of its good name is in the best American corporate tradition. Most companies want the names of their products on everybody’s lips, but because they also want to hold on to their trademark as well as control the corporate image, they don’t like to see those names become part of the ordinary language. Words like zipper, linoleum, and shredded wheat lost trademark protection when they became generic terms, and the same thing is happening to Xerox. Coke has seen its trademark morph into a generic term for any carbonated soft drink in the South, including Atlanta, home of the Coca Cola Corporation. And the owners of Google have begun to remind us that google is not a verb, though it’s listed as such in the OED.
Like Coke, Xerox, and Google, McDonald’s is a victim of its own success. The world’s largest fast-food chain is seeing its trademark tossed around in ordinary, noncommercial language, often in an unflattering way. We’ve gone too far beyond McJob to stop now: there’s McPaper, a designation for USA Today that’s been around since that newspaper made its debut. Other Mc- derivatives include McDonaldize, McDoctors, McTherapy, McWorld, and McMansion, as well as McDonald’s itself, defined positively by the OED as “any service, organization, etc., likened to the McDonald’s chain in some respect, esp. in operating in a highly efficient, standardized manner.”
Dictionary makers themselves can sometimes squabble over the ownership of words. The name “Webster’s” was the subject of a bitter dispute in the early 20th century, with the courts ruling that G. & C. Merriam, who took over publication of Noah Webster’s dictionaries, did not have exclusive rights to the name. Webster’s in everyday English has been synonymous with “dictionary” since Noah Webster hit it big in 1828, but perhaps because they don’t want to get embroiled in further litigation, dictionaries don’t record that generic meaning of the name.
Although many people look to dictionaries for guidance on proper word use, these essential reference books aren’t regulatory mechanisms as much as they are compilations of language practices. Dictionaries don’t tell us how to use our words, they describe how we use them. Certainly the makers of dictionaries must pay attention not just to linguistic nuance, but to the impact that their work has on the course of a language. But if lexicographers allowed individuals or pressure groups to dictate definitions, then our language would be reduced to mere McWords: an English high in calories, low in meaning, requiring little skill, unstimulating – in short, dead-end.