McJob And The OED

Numerous media outlets over the past week have reported that the McDonald’s corporation is up in arms over the inclusion of the word McJob in the Oxford English Dictionary and other British dictionaries.

The OED, which added the word to its online third edition in March 2001, defines McJob as:

An unstimulating, low-paid job with few prospects, esp. one created by the expansion of the service sector.

David Fairhurst, McDonald’s chief people officer in northern Europe, said of the definition, “We believe that it is out of date, out of touch with reality and most importantly it is insulting to those talented, committed, hard-working people who serve the public every day. It’s time the dictionary definition of McJob changed to reflect a job that is stimulating, rewarding and offers genuine opportunities for career progression and skills that last a lifetime.”

McDonald’s says that it is engaging in a public petition to get the OED and other dictionaries to change their definition.

This isn’t the first time that McDonald’s has objected to how a dictionary defines McJob. In 2003, McDonald’s then CEO Jim Cantalupo objected to Merriam Webster’s definition of the term as “a slap in the face” of the company’s employees.

The 11th edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (published in 2003) defines the term as:

A low-paying job that requires little skill and provides little opportunity for advancement.

Now, almost all English-language dictionaries are based on descriptive principles. They don’t define words as they “should” be used. Rather, they define words based on how those words are actually used by professional writers and the public. Lexicographers gather citations of a word’s use, analyze them, and synthesize a definition based on how the word is used in those citations. And if a word is found in a major dictionary, it is almost certain to be in widespread use—or at least have been used by significant writers or speakers. Dictionaries don’t have room to include frivolous words and even on-line dictionaries with no page limits have limited editorial time that is better spent on words that dictionary readers will actually need. So a word like McJob is not included for fun or because the editors have a political point to make.

The term McJob dates to the mid-1980s. Its first known appearance in print is in a headline in the 24 August 1986 Washington Post:

The fast-food factories: McJobs are bad for kids.

There was an earlier use of McJob by McDonald’s as a name for a program to hire the disabled. From the Los Angeles Times of 29 July 1985:

For instance, the McDonald’s fast-food chain recently began a training program for the handicapped in the San Fernando Valley called McJobs. McDonald’s has hired a dozen people after the two 10-week training programs held so far.

The slang sense of the word recorded by the dictionaries is only tangentially related to the 1985 training program for the disabled. They are both based on McDonald’s habit of trademarking terms beginning with Mc-, but there the connection ends. The slang sense is not based on the 1985 use by McDonald’s, but rather on the perceived low status of employment at the fast food chain.

Corporate protests of dictionary entries are nothing new, but usually they are related to whether or not a term is considered a trademark. Trademarks that enter into common use, become “genericized,” lose their status as trademarks and can cost companies dearly. Xerox, for example, is in a continual fight to maintain the trademarked status of its name and does not want the name used as a generic term for photocopying.

Even Wordorigins.org has been subject to corporate lobbying. In our case it was by Google. In this case, Google was quite reasonable and never threatened any type of legal action. They simply objected to the definition of the verb to google as “to search for something on the World Wide Web.” Google wanted the definition to read “to use the Google search engine to search the web.” I happily compromised on “to search for something on the World Wide Web, particularly to search using Google’s search engine,” mainly because it more accurately reflected usage than my original wording.

The McDonald’s web site does claim that McJobs is a trademark, but from the web site there is little evidence that the term is in active use by the company. There are three appearances of the term on the site: in the list of claimed trademarks, in the title of a podcast where it is used in the sense of a job at McDonald’s, and in a reference to the training program for the disabled. But McDonald’s does not seem to be fighting a trademark battle here.

Instead, McDonald’s seems to be engaged in an attempt to bolster their corporate image, but in this case an exercise in shooting the messenger. The problem isn’t the dictionary, the problem is that McDonald’s employs people at very low wages and no fringe benefits to speak of in mind-numbingly dull jobs that impart little or no useful skills for more advanced employment. This business strategy has netted them billions in profits. The problem isn’t that dictionaries are depicting them badly, it’s that McDonald’s is just not a very nice place to work. They could fix the problem, but that would undoubtedly mean a reduction in profits. The situation is one of their own making and if they’re unwilling to change, they shouldn’t complain when others accurately describe it.

Will McDonald’s efforts result in a change in the definitions? It is unlikely. Lexicographers are quite resistant to lobbying efforts. They are continually inundated with entreaties from cranks and intellectual property lawyers about this term and that word. If anything, McDonald’s is only making the dictionary editors look skeptically at any real evidence that the term might be used in a different sense, fearing that any such usages exist because the corporation planted them.

If a publication published a study claiming that McDonald’s food has unhealthful concentrations of fat, sodium, or whatever, McDonald’s would not respond by circulating a petition in protest of the study. No, they would counter the study with evidence that the levels of fat or sodium were not all that high. Or they would add a line of salads to their menu.

They should respond in a similar manner to such dictionary definitions. Instead of a petition, how about collecting citations of McJob being used in a positive sense and submitting the list to the dictionary? Or raising the salaries of its employees and aggressively advertising a program to promote ambitious line workers to management positions? One does not change public perception by changing the dictionary. Rather, one changes the dictionary by changing public perception.

McDonald’s could take a page from how Google approached Wordorigins.org. They disputed my definition on the basis of it not accurately reflecting how the word was actually used. They prompted me to re-examine uses of the verb and I ended up concluding that they were partially right. The verb was used largely, but not exclusively, in the sense of using the Google search engine. As a result, the revised definition could help them in any potential future trademark dispute, albeit perhaps not as much as they might like, and the readers of this site got a more accurate definition of the term. Everybody won.

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