Play hard, work hard

Hack the vote, pt. 2

Would you like a subpoena with those fries?

In its latest, eleventh edition, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary included a new word: “McJob”. They defined it as “a low-paying job that requires little skill and provides little opportunity for advancement.”

McDonald’s went nonlinear over this, and McDonald’s CEO Jim Cantalupo wrote an open letter to Merriam-Webster claiming it was “an inaccurate description of restaurant employment” and “a slap in the face to the 12 million men and women” who work in the restaurant industry. As Yahoo News reports:

Cantalupo also wrote that “more than 1,000 of the men and women who own and operate McDonald’s restaurants today got their start by serving customers behind the counter.”

A veritable land of opportunity. Except that, as the Yahoo reporter went on to note:

McDonald’s, the world’s largest restaurant chain, has more than 30,000 restaurants and more than 400,000 employees.


Anyway, McDonald’s officials also hinted that they’d file an trademark-infringement suit against the dictionary, since McDonald’s runs a training program for mentally and physically challenged people that is actually called “McJOBS”. All of which makes you wonder: Do these guys ever leave their offices? Do they even eat at their own restaurants? They actually thought it would sound kind of cool to title their mentally-challenged division “McJOBS”?

But I digress. The point is, under the force of the complaints, Merriam-Webster did something quite remarkable: They caved. As of yesterday, the word “McJobs” was still listed on the Merriam-Webster web site; but this morning, it had vanished. (You can view a Google-cached copy of the entry here, or see a PDF of it here — I’ve also copied the before-and-after shot above.)

Now, the word “Orwellian” gets thrown waaaay too much these days for its own good. (Seriously folks, go read 1984 again; things aren’t that bad.) Nonetheless, this is one situation that precisely fits what Orwell was thinking of when he coined the idea “Newspeak”, as Jonas notes on his blog:

The whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought (…) Its vocabulary was so constructed as to (…) excluding all other meanings and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words , but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings.

Words, of course, are deeply political. That’s why a dictionary is supposed to be agnostic, and merely report — as objectively as possible — how our language is evolving. Indeed, Merriam-Webster’s own FAQ explains how they choose new words to include:

“How does a word get into the dictionary?” That’s one of the questions Merriam-Webster editors are most often asked.

The answer is simple: usage.

To decide which words to include in the dictionary and to determine what they mean, Merriam-Webster editors study the language as it’s used. They carefully monitor which words people use most often and how they use them.

It’s hardly as if we needed proof, but anyway, I punched “McJob” into Google’s archive of newsgroups and found people using the word as far back as 1996.

(Thanks to Boing Boing for pointing this one out!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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