At a Loss for McWords
How McDonald’s monopolization of the prefix “Mc-” came back to haunt them
McDonald’s have sued a lot of businesses over the use of the Mc- prefix. Its targets have included everything from a Bay Area café (McCoffee, a play on McCaughey, the owner’s surname) to an English Chinese takeaway (McChina, or “Son of China”, in line with the prefix’s original Gaelic meaning) to a Kuala Lumpur Indian restaurant (McCurry, an abbreviation of a dish named “Malaysian chicken curry”). In case you haven’t already noticed a pattern in this list, here it is: the internationally-renowned fast food giant has a habit of going after the little guy.
There’s something like karmic justice, then, in the idea of those two letters that McDonald’s spent so much time and money protecting turning against them — which is precisely what happened in 2003, when a new entry was inducted into Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary: the colloquialism McJob. It was defined as “a low-paying job that requires little skill and provides little opportunity for advancement”, reflecting a usage that had entered the lexicon at least seventeen years prior (as one 1986 Washington Post headline reads, “McJobs are bad for kids”). Of course, the definition doesn’t explicitly mention McDonald’s, but it doesn’t have to — that’s the beauty of the brand recognition they fought so hard for. John Cantalupo, McDonald’s CEO at the time, consequently published an open letter in the magazine Nation’s Restaurant News in which he requested that Merriam-Webster remove or modify the definition, characterising it as “a slap in the face to the 12 million men and women who work hard every day in America’s 900,000 restaurants.” The dictionary did not give in, and McDonald’s reportedly threatened a lawsuit, but never went through with it — perhaps because Merriam-Webster isn’t small-time enough.
McJob is just one of many “McWords” that have emerged in newspaper articles, academic papers, and on the Internet. McWord itself was coined in 1983 by writer Paul Dickson to describe “[a]n awkwardly pretentious mix of languages or traditions — Miss Piggy’s use of moi, the name of Wayne Newton’s mansion (Casa Shenandoah), and Scots-Irish-surnamed food (McMuffin, McChicken, etc.)”, but has since been re-analysed by others to refer to those buzzwords co-opting the Mc- prefix that connote “the quick, cheap, and superficial”, as lexicographer Tom McArthur explains in The Oxford Companion to the English Language. McArthur provides some other illustrative examples, like McFashion (mass-produced, affordable high-street apparel), McLatin (“classical studies made easy”), as well as McWar, which was once used in Independent Magazine to mean “a fast, cheap, well-packaged conflict that makes you feel good and doesn’t cause indigestion.” But there are plenty of other coinages of this variety — and, as you can probably guess, none of them are particularly flattering for the brand that made them possible in the first place.
In 2015, an elderly woman died in a McDonald’s branch in Hong Kong and her body went unnoticed for seven hours. She was one of the hundreds who regularly stay overnight in the city’s twenty-four-hour fast-food restaurants, known colloquially as “McRefugees” or “McSleepers.” Many of these individuals have been pushed out of their homes by rising house prices, and with nowhere else to go, sleep on McDonald’s benches and tables, drawn in by the public bathrooms and air conditioning on hot summer nights. McRefugees can be found in many parts of Asia, notably Japan and mainland China, but are especially pervasive in Hong Kong —a 2018 study found that on a given night, a single branch may be populated by up to thirty sleepers.
The exact definition of McMansion is debatable. The Oxford English Dictionary glosses it as “a modern house built on a large and imposing scale, but regarded as ostentatious and lacking architectural integrity”, while the author behind the popular Tumblr blog “McMansion Hell” goes into an impressive amount of additional detail regarding what distinguishes a McMansion from just any old suburban eyesore. Apart from their size, they are also characterised as cheaply-made and “clad in many different materials, often all at once, applied to the exterior as if they were wallpaper”; they typically cobble together multiple components of conflicting architectural styles and are out of proportion with the lot on which they were built. The analogy with McDonald’s is in their entirely surface-level mass appeal: we all want a big house just like we all want an inexpensive and grease-dripping meal — that is, until we realise what has gone into it.
The prefix Mc- has been attached to a wide variety of ecclesiastical terms to reflect modern attitudes towards Christianity. Though McChurch, often used as a synonym for a megachurch, is perhaps the most well-known of these, there are also related neologisms like McChristian — one who is preoccupied with the consumerist elements of religion (like Christmas) and treats church-going as a purely social activity — and McMission, a term invented by anthropologist Miriam Adeney to refer to short-term missions embarked upon en masse by often disingenuous “tourists for Jesus”.
The list goes on. Other coinages include the New York Times’ use of the word McPaper to refer to USA Today; McDoctor, which describes a (usually second-rate) medical practitioner working in a walk-in clinic; and McTherapy, the quick-fix approach to psychiatry and counselling. It seems as though you can make a mockery of practically any product or service by sticking Mc- in front of it. Sociologist George Ritzer’s seminal book The McDonaldization of Society is chock-full of plenty more examples: “McBeds, McBreakfasts”, “McChildcare”, “McMovie”. Ritzer argues that institutions, social practices and life events (everything from health care to funerals) have undergone a process of “McDonaldization”, adapting their internal structures to match the efficiency and uniformity of fast-food restaurants. He admits that McDonald’s is not the only brand that epitomises this process, but that it was singled out partly because “McDonaldization” has “a better ring to it” than some of the alternatives, among which figure “Burger Kingization” and “Fuddruckerization.” Who knew that it would be the very marketability of the Mc- prefix that would eventually turn it into a synonym for cultural decay?
It’s interesting to note that something very similar happened to Mickey Mouse — any name that soars to such levels of renown eventually swaps its fame out for notoriety; humans are inherently disdainful of the ultra-capitalistic, of any commercial entity that threatens (and sometimes achieves) world domination. Still, McDonald’s has raked in upwards of twenty billion US dollars annually for the past fourteen years. Whatever the popularity of words like McJob and McMansion might say about our attitudes towards the fast-food chain, we’re all still lovin’ it.