Tuesday, March 20, 2007

McDonald's Declares War on a Dictionary

The Financial Times is not known for writing the sort of texts that send you to the dictionary, particularly since most of its readers probably do not have a dictionary close at hand when they are reading it. Nevertheless, after reading yesterday's piece by Stefan Stern and Jenny Wiggins under the headline "McDonald's seeks to redefine 'McJob," I could not resist pulling out my Fifth Edition Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. Sure enough, there it was, between "McIntosh" (the preferred British spelling for the apple variety) and "McKenzie" (whose definition had nothing to do with Bob and Doug). I rather like their definition, perhaps because the final phrase of the text is likely to raise eyebrows for all the right reasons:

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

Of equal interest is the etymological analysis:

from Mc- (in the name of the McDonald's chain of fast-food restaurants, popularly regarded as a source of such employment) + job noun

This brings us to the crux of the Stern-Wiggins report:

The UK arm of the fast food chain is starting a campaign to get British dictionary publishers to revise their definitions of the word “McJob”, a term the Oxford English Dictionary describes as “an unstimulating, low-paid job with few prospects, esp. one created by the expansion of the service sector”.

The word first emerged in the US in the 1980s to describe low-skilled jobs in the fast food industry but was popularised by the Canadian writer Douglas Coupland, in his 1991 novel Generation X. It appeared in the online version of the OED in March 2001. McDonald’s plans a “high-profile public petition” this year to get it changed.

“We believe that it is out of date, out of touch with reality and most importantly it is insulting to those talented, committed, hard-working people who serve the public every day,” wrote David Fairhurst, chief people officer in northern Europe for McDonald’s, in a letter seen by the Financial Times seeking support for the petition. “It’s time the dictionary definition of “McJob” changed to reflect a job that is stimulating, rewarding and offers genuine opportunities for career progression and skills that last a lifetime.”

This story can be pursued in a variety of directions. First, I would make it clear that I, personally, have never used the noun "McJob," nor, to the best of my knowledge, have I encountered it elsewhere. From this readers can conclude that I have never read Generation X (although I have read plenty of other source material about the Generation X phenomenon). On the other hand I have (with great relish) Barbara Garson's The Electronic Sweatshop: How Computers Are Transforming the Office of the Future Into the Factory of the Past, which first appeared in 1988 and whose basic arguments are no less valid today than they were when the book first appeared. Indeed, I suspect it would be very hard for Garson to refrain from reacting to what I have called "The Big Lie of Customer Relationship Management" by saying, "I told you so!" Garson's basic narrative is best summarize by the titles of the three major sections of her book:

  1. Automating the Clerks
  2. Turning Professionals into Clerks
  3. Automating the Boss

In other words, if you want to understand the office of the future, start by looking at the clerks of today. (Did Kevin Smith ever read this book?) She does this in two chapters, the first of which is devoted to (you guessed it) McDonald's.

The next point I would like to make is that David Fairhurst, who seems to be spokesperson for McDonald's indignation (is that part of the job description for "chief people officer?") does not appear to be particularly familiar with the OED. At least he seems to be aware of the first page, which bears the original published title:

A New English Dictionary on a Historical Basis

Those last two words bear all the weight. This is a reference source that is, above all else, a historical document. Every definition is based on documentation of usage that carries enough weight to justify its entry. If that documentation did not extend south of our border with Canada, it may still have pervaded the Commonwealth, which would be sufficient to justify its inclusion in what is probably the Commonwealth's primary dictionary reference. (I bought my first Shorter Oxford English Dictionary when I was living in Singapore.) The point is that Fairhurst has it all backwards. People do not take the OED definition for "McJob" as the meaning of the word because the OED has sanctioned it; the OED published the definition because that is consistent with how people are using the word. If McDonald's wants that definition changed, they should be paying closer attention to what the English-speaking public thinks about them (which sounds like a good thing for a "chief people officer" to be doing), rather than picking a fight with Oxford University Press (not to mention threatening legal action).

Does the definition need to be changed? To the extent that McDonald's has tried to contest it with a substantive argument, they seem to have concentrated on the "prospects" aspect:

McDonald’s says it has an excellent record of promoting female workers and entry level staff to senior executive positions. In the UK, half the executive team started on the shop floor and 25 per cent are women.

Personally, I find this a pretty lame effort at refutation (and I can only imagine what the female population things of it). On the other hand McDonald's seems to have recognized that argumentation is not always the best strategy. Instead, one can invoke Emery Roe's principle that the only way to undermine a narrative is with a counternarrative:

A McDonald’s recruitment campaign in the UK last year featured slogans such as “McProspects – over half of our executive team started in our restaurants. Not bad for a McJob.”

This then transfers the onus to the reader, who has decided which narrative to believe. Personally, I embrace the OED strategy of keeping the definitions consistent with the life-world. I rarely go into McDonald's, and there is one right across the street from where I live. However, my last venture came on my way back to San Francisco after having delivered a seminar talk at the University of California at Santa Cruz; and I wanted to grab a quick bite before getting back on the road. Nothing had changed since Garson wrote her chapter. If anything thing, the clerks were even more bewildered by the technology, which now had to support more customer options than when Garson made her study. If things are different in the Commonwealth, I would be happy to hear about it!

1 comment:

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