When McDonald's Went to War With the Dictionary

McDonald's was hoping to redefine a word they found offensive.
McDonald's was hoping to redefine a word they found offensive. / JJBers, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Fast food giant McDonald’s has sold billions of hamburgers, but that success hasn’t come without getting into a few pickles. In 2003, the company butted heads with both The Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary over an entry they felt was disparaging to the brand. And no, it wasn’t “cholesterol.”

Executives were miffed that the two legitimized the word McJob.

While it’s impossible to discern who exactly coined the term, it first gained popularity after being featured in Generation X, the influential 1991 novel by Douglas Coupland about disenfranchised young adults.

The Oxford English Dictionary began including the word in its 2001 edition, defining it as “an unstimulating, low-paid job with few prospects, esp. one created by the expansion of a service sector.” While McDonald’s was not mentioned by name, the “Mc” made it fairly clear what sort of job and what sort of company would fit the description.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary followed suit in 2003, using harsher language to describe a McJob as “low-paying and dead-end work.”

In both cases, McDonald’s was not amused. Company CEO Jim Cantalupo wrote an open letter to Merriam-Webster published in the trade magazine Nation’s Restaurant News objecting to the characterization. McDonald’s employees, he wrote, were undeserving of such condescension.

Things grew more confrontational in the UK, where McDonald’s reportedly considered legal action and suggested the definition of “McJob” be changed to reflect a “rewarding” occupation. The Oxford English Dictionary offered a rebuttal by saying their definitions reflect popular usage, not how a particular group wished a word to be used.

When it became clear neither path was going to be feasible, the company launched an advertising campaign in 2006 to highlight new buzzwords like “McWords, “McFlexible,” “McDiscounts,” and “McProspects” to reflect the opportunities for employees.

McDonald’s was not alone in challenging perceived dictionary offenses. In 2006, Britain’s Potato Council made a similar complaint against The Oxford English Dictionary for associating couch potato and thus potatoes with unhealthy living. The council’s preferred phrase, couch slouch, failed to catch on.

[h/t Reader’s Digest]