Fast-food connotation

November 14, 2003

IT'S NOT too often that a dictionary can cause a stir, but Merriam-Webster's Collegiate 11th edition has riled food giant McDonald's to the point that this month it mustered its PR machine to pressure the lexicographers into apologizing for their definition of McJob and deleting it from page and screen.

Far from "a low-paying job that requires little skill and provides little opportunity for advancement," as Webster's defines it, jobs at McDonald's are instead "all about opportunity for hundreds of thousands of Americans," a spokesman said back in July, when the dictionary was released. Apparently, the fast-food folks have been simmering since.

So sorry, but Webster's didn't invent that description, it merely cataloged it. From Douglas Coupland's Generation X (a new word itself a while back) to the WB network's Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the word has been in circulation for more than a decade.

McDonald's has turned its name into a global symbol through years of canny marketing and phenomenal growth. Its restaurants are ubiquitous; most people have an easy familiarity with the chain, and many have worked for it. It has plans to stretch its brand by licensing "McKids" lines of clothes, toys and books. But such a ready-made linguistic shortcut is a two-edged sword.

The firm has seen its prefix used to coin such terms as McMansions, McPaper (for USA Today) and even McWorld, a theory of what might happen if individual cultures disappear, replaced entirely by U.S. culture.

By calling attention to the term McJobs, McDonald's marketers may have misstepped: The attention may further popularize its usage and breed other - even less flattering - McWords.

Their best hope is that the word quietly falls out of favor - and the dictionary - the way poke bonnet, record changer and totalitarianize did this year. In the meantime, they can take comfort in the thought that it's only the people who don't know a word's meaning who have to look it up.

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