boston.com News your connection to The Boston Globe
Today's Globe  |   Latest News:   Local   Nation   World   |  NECN   Education   Obituaries   Special sections  
THE WORD

Take this McJob

TO JIM CANTALUPO, chairman and CEO of McDonald's, finding McJob in the new Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary was like spotting a cockroach in the kitchen. Kill it, he ordered the lexicographers, calling the definition of McJob as "low-paying and dead-end work" (in his paraphrase) inaccurate and insulting to restaurant workers everywhere.

Cantalupo had no use for M-W's citations of McJob, either -- the people using the word, he said, were just "assorted academics, pundits and random news stories."

Besides, McJob (at least in the plural) is a trademark, said Cantalupo in his letter to M-W, which was also published in Nation's Restaurant News. McJobs, launched in 1984, is the company's own program for training people with disabilities. Trademark infringement, insulting the disabled, mocking happy restaurant workers -- how low can a dictionary go?

Cantalupo hasn't actually threatened to sue (maybe he remembers Fox vs. Franken), but he seems to think a dictionary can declare a word nonexistent, as if it were a slow-selling sandwich. And nobody seems to have warned him that a head-on attack might help revive the very usage he wants to stamp out.

It's only natural, granted, that McDonald's would like to control its eponymous offspring. Who wouldn't? The Disney Co. can't be pleased that "Mickey Mouse" means trivial or simple, as it has since the '30s (one of its early users, in fact, was that eminent eponym George Orwell). And the American Legion probably wishes someone else had come down with the bug now called Legionnaire's disease.

But eponyms have lives of their own. True, we've abandoned some eponymous national and ethnic slurs -- paddy wagons and welshing are frowned upon by editors -- but most of the time we don't ask permission to eponymize. Argyles, boycotts, and sandwiches belong to us now, not to the men they were named after.

And McDonald's was a particularly fat target for eponymy. Not only had it created dozens of its own McCoinages -- McScholar, McPollo, McWorld -- but the company prides itself on the kind of standardization such names suggest, prescribing routines and recipes practically down to the number of seeds on a bun. A slot in a copy shop or video store can be a McJob, but as the icon of replicability, McDonald's was the natural choice to epitomize (and eponymize) such work.

(I'm aware, keen-eyed readers, that eponym originally applied only to the person after whom something was named: "Emma is the eponymous heroine of Jane Austen's novel." I'm using it more loosely here, with reasons to come when space allows.)

If McDonald's couldn't accept satire as the price of fame, though, why didn't it protest the McJob coinage long ago? The first use in the Nexis database, it's true, wouldn't have raised hackles: It was an innocent play on words in a 1985 UPI story on the labor shortage. "Ronald McDonald has a mcjob for you," it began, with no scorn intended.

But McJob in the "robotic, dumb" sense popped up in the Washington Post just a year later, the work of an editor who headlined a 1986 opinion piece "McJobs Are Bad for Kids." The term was instantly adopted by economic commentators: They disagreed (as they still do) on whether such low-wage jobs are truly dead-end soul-killers or steppingstones to fulfilling careers, but both camps called them McJobs.

Though Doug Coupland often gets credit for coining McJob, he didn't join the chorus till 1991, when his best-selling novel "Generation X" made McJobs one element of the post-boomer cohort's disaffection. The term spread rapidly, and in 1993 the American Dialect Society, at its annual meeting, voted it "most imaginative" of the year's buzzwords.

McJob peaked in print, however, in 1994, with more than 100 US citations; in the years since, it has leveled off, never again topping 50 mentions. But it remained common enough to rate inclusion in the American Heritage Dictionary (2000) and the online edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.

So why the current McFlurry from corporate HQ? Perhaps because Merriam-Webster's publicists cleverly put McJob on its short list of new words in the 11th edition, ensuring that journalists would pick up on it. McJob citations are up sharply this year, on track to break the '94 record. And if the word does get its buzz back, McDonald's will have helped: Its complaint can only keep the debate sizzling and the McJobs tally rising. That's the kind of corporate strategy you'd expect from the clown, not the CEO.

E-mail freeman@globe.com.

SEARCH GLOBE ARCHIVES
 
Globe Archives Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months