Take This McJob and Shove It

by Dennis Baron

McDonald’s wants Merriam-Webster to take its McJob and shove it. McDonald’s CEO Jim Cantalupo is steamed that the latest edition of the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary defines “McJob” as low-paying, requiring little skill and providing little opportunity for advancement. Three years ago the American Heritage Dictionary ran a similar definition, and the Oxford English Dictionary adds “unstimulating” to the mix of descriptors branding McJobs as dead-end.

Cantalupo calls such negative definitions “a slap in the face” to American restaurant workers. Although he insists that the word is not part of the nation’s vocabulary, Cantalupo admits that McJob is no stranger to restaurant trade journals. He wants everyone--including Merriam-Webster--to stop using it.

Merriam-Webster announced that it was sticking by its definition, which reflects the way McJob has been used for at least seventeen years. Dictionary editors regularly include words far more controversial and offensive than McJob because their job is to record how the rest of us use our language, and we don’t always use it politely. Jim Cantalupo isn’t the first person to object to what he feels is bad language in the dictionary, nor is he the first to tell lexicographers how to define their words. For example, in 1872 A. S. Solomons protested G. & C. Merriam’s definition of the verb “jew” as “to cheat.” And in 1997 a grass-roots protest insisted that Merriam-Webster drop the word “nigger” from the dictionary. The NAACP joined that protest, calling for the dictionary to remove to any reference to race in the word’s definition.

As someone whose heritage is both Jewish and South Asian, I’m particularly sensitive to the negative racial and religious vocabulary that gets tossed around both casually and vindictively. But it’s not the job of dictionaries to root out offensive language or to change social attitudes, and most lexicographers are careful to warn readers when words are venomous and demeaning.

Merriam had carefully marked the negative use of “jew” as insulting, and though the dictionary maker removed that verb from its Collegiate dictionaries, “to jew” can still be found in the Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged, where it carries the label “offensive.”

Merriam-Webster took the complaint against “nigger” seriously as well, revising the definition in the new Collegiate to reflect the nonracial contexts where the word sometimes occurs, as well as the fact that “its use by and among blacks is not always intended or taken as offensive.” But the dictionary also affirmed its earlier conclusion that the word is typically “expressive of racial hatred and bigotry.”

Like others who would clean up our dictionaries, Jim Cantalupo, anxious to protect his company from bad press, will find his linguistic protest comes too late. Most people know exactly what McJob means without a dictionary. Wildly successful business phenomena like McDonald’s have a way of working their way into our language as well as our culture. In the early 20th century, Coca Cola sued to prevent the marketing of other drinks with “cola” in their name, winning judgments against upstarts like Chero-Cola, Clio-Cola, and El-Cola but losing against Cherry-Cola, Dixie-Cola, and Koke, all of them long gone. Coke also lost its bid to prevent Seven-Up from calling itself “the Un-cola.” One result of Atlanta-based Coke’s domination of the cola industry is that “coke” and “co’ cola” have become generic terms in the South for any soft drink. Another soft drink, Moxie, won a suit against the competitor Noxie, only to see “moxie,” enter the language as an ordinary word meaning energy, guts, or chutzpah. Shredded wheat, thermos and zipper all began as trademarked terms that morphed into everyday words as well.

Manufacturers want the names of their products on everybody’s lips, but they don’t want those names to become everybody’s property, so like McDonald’s they try to regulate the way we use those names. The Xerox Corporation used to take out large ads in the New York Times admonishing readers that Xerox with a capital X could only be a proper noun (Xerox machine) or proper adjective (Xerox copy). Book and journal editors pay attention to these warnings because they don’t want to be sued, but people have been using “xerox” (uncapped) as a noun or verb regardless of the brand of photocopy machine since the 1960s.

Like Coke, Xerox, and zipper, McDonald’s is a victim of its own success: the world’s largest fast-food chain is seeing its trademark adapted into ordinary, noncommercial language, often in an unflattering way. We’ve gone way beyond McJob: there’s McPaper, a designation for USA Today that’s been around since that newspaper debuted (the oldest OED citation for McPaper is a 1982 New York Times article). 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.”

Ever eager to burnish its public image, the McDonald’s Corporation once hired a public relations firm to ascertain the correct plural of the Egg McMuffin. Perhaps they were hoping to gain approval for Eggs McMuffin, on the analogy of the more upmarket eggs Benedict. But that quest went nowhere. So far as I know, the company never ruled on what eaters of the Egg McMuffin should order if they want more than one.

Dictionary-makers themselves can 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, the lineal publishing descendants 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, no dictionary records this generic meaning of the name.

Although many people look to dictionaries for guidance in proper word use, these essential reference books aren’t regulatory mechanisms so 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.

Dennis Baron, professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois. This essay originally appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education.