McDonald’s Almost Sued the Dictionary—Here’s Why It Didn’t

When the dictionary dared to diss them, McDonald's took it in stride. Sort of.

The word “dictionary” might call to mind a massive, dusty book, but dictionaries are much more than that. They’re dynamic, imperfect compilations of relevant words in a certain language. They add hundreds upon hundreds of words each year. They make mistakessometimes intentionally. And sometimes, they run afoul of massive fast-food companies.

In 2001, the Oxford English Dictionary began including the slang term “McJob,” meaning: “an unstimulating, low-paid job with few prospects, esp. one created by the expansion of the service sector.” Of course, it was a blanket term evoking all service jobs, but the use of “Mc” made it pretty clear which specific company users of the term thought the epitome was. The OED cited usages of the term as early as 1986; it gained popularity in particular because of its use in the 1991 novel Generation X. The term also joined the 11th edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary in 2003. (Neither dictionary definition specifically mentioned McDonald’s. Not that they needed to, but still.)

Unsurprisingly, when McDonald’s caught on, they were less than thrilled. In late 2003, the then-CEO of McDonald’s, Jim Cantalupo, wrote an “open letter” to Merriam-Webster, which was published in Nation’s Restaurant News. The letter eloquently listed the reasons they were wrong in defining “McJob” like this and kindly suggested that they remove the word. Cantalupo called the current definition of “McJob” “an inaccurate description of restaurant employment” and “a slap in the face to the 12 million men and women who work hard every day in America’s 900,000 restaurants.” While this letter did prompt a debate surrounding the ethics of stereotyping and demeaning food service workers, needless to say, nothing changed in the dictionary world.

But the battle raged on, in the United Kingdom in particular. McDonald’s reportedly even threatened legal action, and U.K. McDonald’s executives spearheaded a petition to have the definition not removed, but changed. McDonald’s senior vice president David Fairhurst argued that the new definition should “reflect a job that is stimulating, rewarding … and offers skills that last a lifetime.” So…yeah, the powers that be at McDonald’s essentially wanted to replace a dictionary definition with borderline pro-McDonald’s propaganda. Here are some more surprising facts you never knew about McDonald’s.

McDonald’s eventually clapped back in a more logical manner, in early 2006. Throughout the United Kingdom, McDonald’s ads started appearing—ones that not-so-subtly protested the accepted definition. The ads prominently featured different “McWords,” like “McFlexible,” “McDiscounts,” and “McProspects.” The text called out some of the benefits of working for McDonald’s—”over half of our Executive Team started in our restaurants”—and emphatically closed with “Not bad for a McJob.”

So the law didn’t end up getting involved in this instance. But there are no shortage of equally hilarious fast-food lawsuits that did get filed—where the fast-food chains were actually the targets.

Meghan Jones
Meghan Jones is a word nerd who has been writing for since 2017. You can find her byline on pieces about grammar, fun facts, the meanings of various head-scratching words and phrases, and more. Meghan graduated from Marist College with a Bachelor of Arts in English in 2017; her creative nonfiction piece “Anticipation” was published in the Spring 2017 issue of Angles literary magazine.