Can McDonald's Alter the Dictionary?

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Mark Peterson / Corbis

An employee cleans the "Thank You" sign outside a Chicago McDonald's restaurant.

The late Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said that the meaning of a word was derived from the way it is used in language. Not according to McDonald's. The fast-food giant is currently lobbying dictionary publishers to change the meaning of the word McJob — or remove it altogether — on the grounds that it denigrates the company's employees.

First used some 20 years ago in the United States to describe low-paying, low-skill jobs that offered little prospect of advancement, the term McJob was popularized by the author Douglas Coupland in his 1991 slacker ode Generation X, which chronicled the efforts of a "lost" generation of twenty-somethings to escape their dead-end jobs in an attempt to find meaning in life.

In 2001, the term finally entered the Oxford English Dictionary, which defined it as "an unstimulating, low-paid job with few prospects, especially one created by the expansion of the service sector." And it has remained there ever since. But not for much longer if McDonald's gets its way.

The company is leading a "word battle" on behalf of the wider service sector. The object, according to David Fairhurst, a senior vice-president of McDonald's, is to change the definition of McJob to "reflect a job that is stimulating, rewarding ... and offers skills that last a lifetime."

At first the OED, Britain's dictionary of record, explained that it merely recorded words according to their popular usage. A statement from a company official said it was not their role to redefine meanings assigned those words according to the preferences of interest groups.

Representatives of McDonald's responded by arguing that the OED's definition was "outdated" and "insulting."

So, the OED is turning to the public, inviting people to submit opinions on the definition of a McJob: "We're analysing the situation at the moment and evidence for the usage of the word," OED representative John Simpson told TIME. "It's a continuing process."

McDonald's is hardly the first interest group to challenge the OED's chronicling of unflattering slang. Last year, Britain's Potato Council complained that the definition of couch potato implied that the nutritious tuber was inherently unhealthy, thus driving down business. Instead, the Council campaigned for the term to be replaced by couch slouch, even staging protests outside the OED's Oxford headquarters — but to no avail.

This time, however, could be different — not least because of the size of McDonald's war chest and its lobbying power. The campaign has already the garnered the support of heavyweight business figures such as Chambers of Commerce Director General David Frost. More impressively, Conservative party Member of Parliament Clive Betts last week introduced a motion into Britain's parliament condemning the pejorative use of McJob. Betts believes the OED should redefine the term: "It would be helpful if the dictionary took the lead on this. It's not a proper and true reflection of the service industry today."

But the McDonald's "word war" is hardly confined to the corridors of power. Last Friday morning in Birmingham, TIME found a McDonald's publicity team on the street, beneath an enormous TV screen atop a parked van beaming images of bright, happy McDonald's staff, urging passers-by to sign a petition to change the definition of McJob.

"We're evidence collecting", said Sue Husband, head of regional corporate communications. The street campaign will visit 40 cities and towns over the next month, culminating in a formal presentation to the OED in October.

Adds Douglas Wright, a local McDonald's franchisee, "We're trying to reenergize the definition [and] we're backed by the chamber of commerce. The support has been phenomenal."

Away from the official jamboree in Birmingham's city center, however, the enthusiasm for McJobs is more muted among some of those who actually perform them. "Pay is an issue," said Nikki, who works as a floor manager at a nearby restaurant and has two young children at home. "We work very hard here; you're on your feet eight hours a day."

Another employee, who preferred to remain anonymous, added that serving customers beat his old position as a factory sweeper. But, he added, "it's just a job."

Still, they agreed that current usage of McJob is offensive, although others say that the burger chain is missing the point: it's the job that the term describes, not the person doing it.

And it is this stress on the dignity of service industry labor that supporters of the campaign to redefine McJob like to emphasize: "Service sector employees ... should be respected and valued, not written off," said Sir Digby Jones, former chief of the Confederation of British Industry. Skeptics suggest that the language used to describe such jobs will change when the conditions and prospects associated with those jobs change. But whether the Oxford English Dictionary changes its definition of McJob may depend on the outcome of this summer's word war.