It's an audacious plan, lobbying a dictionary to change word definitions, but this is exactly what fast food giant McDonald's is attempting to do. A planned public petition will argue that the ‘McJob' concept is outdated.
A McJob is noted in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as ‘an unstimulating, low-paid job with few prospects' - understandably not the best publicity for a company attempting to improve its employment reputation.
McDonald's is not alone in being affected by negative brand connotations. Hoover, Google and Xerox have all suffered from ‘genericide', when a brand name becomes a generic name for an entire category. Not to mention many other brands that have met the same fate: Gunk, Asprin, Escalator, Yo-Yo and Nylon.
So what can a brand do to retain control over its reputation?
Asked how amenable they were to lobbying, the OED, Collins English Dictionary and Dictionary.com all stood firm, reinforcing the point that their job was to report and reflect the current meaning and usage of words.
‘Not our job to please people'
‘Dictionaries just reflect the words that society uses,' said OED chief editor John Simpson in a BBC interview. He noted that words were never removed from the main dictionary, but words that were seldom used may be removed from the smaller versions.
‘It is not our job to please or displease people,' said Dictionary.com managing editor Barbara Ann Kipfer. ‘We are reporting the way that language is used. By the time a word enters the dictionary, it has already been seen in so many sources that there's really no question of the accuracy of its usage. It's very unlikely that a definition will change.'
A few previous campaigns have targeted the dictionary. In the summer of 2005, the British Potato Council lobbied to change ‘couch potato' to ‘couch slouch'. With the support of Ketchum, simultaneous demonstrations were organised at Parliament Square and the Oxford University Press. An Early Day Motion was tabled and celebrities including Antony Worrall Thompson joined the crusade.
'The main aim of the campaign was to remove the "couch potato" term from the dictionary and, in doing so, increase awareness that potatoes are a healthy food item,' said Catherine Lange, marketing manager.
But despite huge press coverage and increased public awareness, the term was not changed in the dictionary.
‘It's very unlikely that a dictionary house would succumb to this kind of pressure,' said Kipfer. ‘If we were to drop a definition that people actually use, that would effectively be lying.'
She added: ‘We would need a lot of evidence to change a word. Say 100-200 sources where the word is being used in a completely different way.'
OED chief editor John Simpson agrees that a large body of evidence is required before a definition could be changed. ‘Our constant monitoring of the English language has many different aspects: we commission an extensive reading programme of texts (both historical and modern); we search a large selection of sources; we carry out our own research; we act on suggestions and advice from academic reviewers and the public,' he told PRWeek. ‘The material collected in this way forms the basis for objective editorial decisions on including and updating words in the dictionary.'
Duncan Black, an editor of Collins English Dictionary, confirmed they use similar means to gather evidence. ‘We use a huge corpus with access to everything in the public domain - including newspapers, magazines, podcast transcriptions, digital media and spoken word,' said Black. ‘We need more than a petition.'
Legally, brands are also at a disadvantage. Both McDonald's and Google contacted their lawyers in attempts to prevent words entering the dictionary - ‘McJob' in 2001, and ‘Google' as a verb in 2006. Google sent a series of legal letters to offending publications asking them to refrain from using its brand name as a verb, without success.
‘There's not much they can do'
Sian Croxon, partner at DLA Piper's Technology, Media and Communications group, said legally McDonald's does not have a case. ‘Despite McJob being a registered trademark in the UK since 1998, if the word has become generic in common parlance, then I can't see that there's anything they can do,' she argued. ‘It's not trademark infringement because it's not trademark use, and it's not trade libel because it's merely reflecting usage.'
While legal action and direct lobbying both appear ineffective, there is a small chink of light for eager PROs.
‘We wouldn't be adverse to an appeal that we could back up with significant research,' revealed Kipfer. ‘For example, we may put a disclaimer next to the word indicating whether it's vulgar or slang if that would help people understand and use the language.'
So it may be possible to prove some people find a term offensive, but not change a definition through a petition.
‘We don't refuse to include words that are rude, derogatory or offensive, but we use "usage notes" to warn readers where this is the case,' said OED project editor Angus Stevenson on the company's website. ‘Attitudes to language... are constantly changing.'
Ultimately, of course, a lack of success in actually changing a dictionary definition may not matter if the attempt has managed to generate the kind of publicity that the McJob story attracted last week.
WHO TO CONTACT
Dictionary.com (Lexico Publishing Company)
Collins English Dictionary (Harper Collins Publishers)
Morven Dooner - project manager T 0141 306 3695
Elaine Higgleton - editorial director T 0141 306 3467
Kormac McKeown - editor T 0141 306 3559
Duncan Black - editor T 0141 306 3718
Oxford English Dictionary