The Limits of "McLanguage"
The radio program Marketplace Morning Report today reported that the McDonald's restaurant corporation in Britain is pressuring dictionary makers to change the definition of the word McJob.
The Oxford English Dictionary currently offers the following entry, dated March 2001:
McJob, n. colloq. and depreciative (orig. U.S.). An unstimulating, low-paid job with few prospects, esp. one created by the expansion of the service sector.
Marketplace commentator Stefan Stern speculates that the corporation "finally had enough of feeling tarred or slurred with this phrase McJob." McDonald's argues that they provide decent jobs, as well as training for many thousands of employees.
Fair enough, but that rather misses the point. There is little evidence that speakers who use the word refer to unstimulating jobs at McDonald's restaurants. Rather, it refers to unsatisfying positions generally - often, but not always, in the service industry. OED cites, among others, Douglas Coupland's novel Generation X.
Dag..was bored and cranky after eight hours of working his McJob (‘Low pay, low prestige, low benefits, low future’).
As usual, the canny folks at Language Log posted on this before I did. Roger Shuy notes that lexicographers are unlikely to be swayed by McDonald's "public petition campaign." Shuy, who specializes in language and the law and has written on McDonald's legal efforts before, suggests that the company may have brought this problem on itself.
At the 1987 trial in which McDonald's prevented Quality Inns International from naming a new hotel chain McSleep Inns, a corporate representative related how the company's icon, Ronald McDonald, had traveled around the country and actually taught children how to add the Mc- prefix before many different words, such as "McFries," "McShakes," and "McBest." Then McDonald's vice-president for advertising testified that the purpose of this campaign was to create a "McLanguage" that was specifically associated with McDonald's. The campaign worked. Suddenly hundreds of new Mc- words appeared in the press, including "McHospital," "McStory," "McTelevision," "McArt," "McLawyers," and, you guessed it, "McJobs." The meaning conveyed by Mc- was pretty clear in all the newly created words.
Now McDonald's wants to upgrade the very meaning it created all by itself. That may take some doing.
In the US, the story gets even stranger. CNN suggests that the company may be considering a lawsuit.
Walt Riker, a spokesman for McDonald's, said the Oak Brook, Illinois-based fast-food giant also is concerned that "McJob" closely resembles McJOBS, the company's training program for mentally and physically challenged people.
"McJOBS is trademarked and we've notified them that legally that's an issue for us as well," Riker said.
Might I suggest that the US arm of the company is going about this in the wrong way? If, as is the case with usage, dictionaries determine lexical definitions with input from a scholarly committee, perhaps lobbying a few linguistic taste-makers would be more effective?
On the other hand, if offering free lunches to linguistic anthropologists proves fruitless, this morning's Marketplace points to another possible way to affect lexical meaing.
It's an uphill battle for search engines not named Google. Have you ever heard anyone say, 'Yeah, I'll just Yahoo the directions?' Well, Yahoo is hoping to make a name in searches on cell phones.
Rather than enjoining people from using "google" as a verb, Yahoo! plans to compete by offering new services. The world waits anxiously to see what effects this will have on lexicography.