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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(1980’s | journalese)

An unregistered trademark, this word probably isn’t eligible for the blog, but it’s part of the zeitgeist, so what the hell. It is a nickname for USA Today and has existed almost as long as that journalistic institution. First recorded use in the New York Times, October 17, 1982, only a month after the very first issue hit the stands: “Some dismiss the newspaper, with its flood of short articles, as journalistic junk food, or ‘McPaper’.” I’ve never seen an individual credited with the coinage, but we may imagine a chain-smoking hack, with loosened tie and rumpled hair, coming out with it during a clinical dissection of the upstart rival, with its color graphics and short, uninformative articles. It was flashy, broad-brush, an easy read for the man on the go. Lots of sports news and celebrity gossip. You see where I’m going with this: They are all McPapers now.

It was easy to dismiss USA Today back then, and their journalistic reputation has improved since. The term “McPaper” has never become especially widespread and generally seems to have been kept alive by media critics. It was current by 1990; everybody knew what it meant. It held more contempt than it does now, though I suppose it still bears a shade of scorn.

I was in high school in 1982, and I remember walking up to the main drag in my home town to see if an inaugural USA Today remained in the curbside box (a white not-quite cube with the logo painted in blue on the side, meant to evoke a television set). It was a real novelty at first, and it became very successful — financially, at least. But the standards that seemed dangerously low to veteran journalists in 1982 don’t look so bad today.


(1990’s | corporatese? academese? | “dead-end job”)

Although McDonald’s tried to get Merriam Webster to remove “McJob” from the dictionary in 2003, it invented the term itself in 1984. From PR Newswire (May 24, 1984): “McDonald’s will also utilize a new training and employment program called ‘McJobs’ as a source for recruiting some of the new employees.” By the end of the eighties, the derisive sense we know today was established, although the term often referred specifically to a job in a fast-food restaurant. The McDonalds training program persisted for several years, but I haven’t found a recent reference to it, although reported last year on a worker morale campaign called “I love my McJob” that invited McDonalds’ employees to videotape a paean to their employment (and, presumably, employer).

In fact, McDonalds lost control of this one years ago. As early as 1988, it sued Quality Inn, which was trying to trademark a chain called McSleep Inns. Lawyers came up with “a list of more than sixty ‘”mc” words.’ None were trademarked by McDonald’s. . . . Besides McFashion and McPaper, the list included McArt, McFuneral, McTelevision, McNews, McLaw and McWhatever” (New York Times July 22, 1988). Wikipedia and others credit sociologist Amitai Etzioni with first using “McJob” to denote low-wage, dead-end, service-sector employment.

“McJob” has clearly grown beyond its fast-food origins to take on a more general meaning. It’s the kind of job minority teenagers get — the kind of job you either overcome or languish in, the kind of job you recall ruefully years later or you acknowledge as having taught you how to work. Economists argue about the extent to which our economy is being overcome by such unpromising jobs and what effect it will have on our future. I never worked in a fast-food restaurant, but I knew a girl in high school with scars on her arms from grease burns. When she worked her shift at McDonald’s, she wore a button that said “Eat McShit and Die.”


(2000’s | journalese | “oversized suburban house”)

First use in LexisNexis: Henry Allen in the Washington Post, July 14, 1991: “those big Reagan-era McMansions.” He didn’t bother with quotation marks or a gloss, but as late as 2000, you still often saw the term in quotation marks. A few years later they had disappeared.

Of the three “Mc” words considered here, McMansion got the latest start but has spread the farthest. The trend of using “Mc” as a derisive prefix denoting cheapness and standardization took hold in the eighties. Some time during my childhood McDonalds became ubiquitous (I’m old enough to remember when the signs had actual numbers on them, rather than simply “Billions and billions served”), a business success story on a huge scale that inevitably became an object of scorn. In the seventies, we called it “Mickey D’s” and understood dimly that eating or socializing there wasn’t altogether good for one’s character, but that never kept us from doing it.

“McMansion” represents an evolution, I think. “McPaper” and “McJobs” were devoid of substance, paltry, inadequate. But there’s nothing inadequate about a McMansion — they’re opulent, even gross, the proud property of those who equate crass flaunting of wealth with the American dream. The element of standardization persists in “McMansion,” perhaps, but the cheapness evoked has nothing to do with money. It’s an absence of heart and soul. When you build a McMansion, you substitute brute fiscal force for old-fashioned values of respect for tradition (not to mention your neighbors’ privacy), moderation, or wisdom. You’re just a machine, taking money in and spitting it out.

There seems to be a shadowy connection between the ratio of the McMansion’s footprint to the size of the lot it’s built on. While it can mean a large house on a large lot or on a small lot, most people reserve their venom for a large house that takes up an entire lot, encroaching on everyone else’s space. I have a notion that “McMansion” is now used often in that narrow sense.

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