March 20, 2007

Getting better McJobs

The BBC reports the UK arm of McDonald's is starting a campaign that will lead to a more favorable definition of "McJob" than is currently found the The Oxford English Dictionary, which reads:

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

McDonald's believes this definition is out of date, inaccurate, and insulting, saying that it's time the dictionary changed its definition. The fast-food giant disagrees with the "few prospects" part of this definition and tries to rebut it with this slogan:

McProspects - over half of our executive team started in our restaurants.

I suppose it's possible that this slogan might be able to help change the public's perception about employment opportunities at McDonald's but it's likely that it will take considerably more than a slogan to do this. Employment at McDonald's suggests a low paying, starter position for students and unskilled laborers. But even a catchy slogan (if this is one) doesn't change the nature of the job of preparing and serving mass-produced hamburgers. That's still a pretty low-level slot in the scheme of things.

And it's not clear what the slogan means by McDonald's "executive team." One might suspect that it refers to any other jobs besides the ones most visible to McDonald's patrons. Even if some service people at some time and in some place indeed rise to an "executive" level (assuming "executive" means what I think it means), it would seem to require a considerable amount of education and experience to ever reach it. Or it could mean that six of the ten "executives" they cite once worked the counter when they were in high school. Or maybe "executive team" means something else entirely.

Nor is it exactly clear what McDonald's means by a "public petition campaign," but since the company cited the dictionary definition as at least part of the problem, it would be prudent for the company to consider how good lexicographers do their work. Sydney Landau, in his book, Dictionaries: the Art and Craft of Lexicography (Cambridge U Press, 2001) says that the lexicographer "cannot allow any special-interest group to determine what gets in his dictionary or how it is represented" (page 407). That would seem to discourage McDonald's from being too pushy with lexicographers, who have their own methods of detmining meaning and who don't much cater to external pressures from industry.

McDonald's has also made noises about this in the US (here). The company sent an open letter to Merriam-Webster that claims its dictionary definition of "McJob,"

low paying job that requires little skill and provides little opportunity for advacement,

is a slap in the face of the 12 million men and women who work in the restaurant industry. In the US it appears that the McDonald's "public petition campaign" is directed at dictionaries rather than the general public, but who knows what is coming next. Merriam Webster and McDonald's have been going around on this for a couple of years now.

Thus the saga of the Mc- prefix continues, only this time not as a trademark dispute. In a way, the McJobs matter is a self-inflicted wound. 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.

[UPDATE] NPR's producer of the program, "On the Media," reports that the show is doing a brief commentary this weekend about a certain subset of proprietary eponyms, specifically those that are used in an unflattering way, such as Spam, Muzak or McJob. If anyone has other examples of such terms, he asks that you send them the NPR website,

[UPDATE 2] Bill Poser points out that the CNN article says that of the 400,000 employees of McDonald's some 1,000 now own and operate stores. That's at most a 1 in 200 rate at which employees rise to managment, hardly a promising career path.

Posted by Roger Shuy at March 20, 2007 04:27 PM