Descriptive not Prescriptive
I was chatting with a Dutch-speaking Belgian friend the other day, who was bemoaning the fact that she can’t keep up with the spelling reforms that have taken place since she went to school, which wasn’t particularly long ago. “They should send round a flyer explaining the new rules when they change them,” she asserted.
That started me thinking. Who are “they”? One of the nice things about the English language is its democratic nature. Grammars, dictionaries, orthographic conventions and so on do exist, but they are descriptive rather than prescriptive. There is no one group defining these things, as in the case of many other languages. Attempts to retrofit rules onto the language—with the split infinitive being a prime example—tend to frequently be ignored.
Maybe if we had an authority, spelling would be more systematic. However, which dialect should be chosen? The wide range of pronunciations in English speech groups throughout the world would make it difficult. Rhotic and non-rhotic accents; vowel sounds; elisions and more. What about the many loanwords? But to be honest, it’s not a problem, I feel. English spelling does make learning to read and write more difficult, but that difficulty tends to represent an investment that few would be willing to give up. Any attempt to write English phonetically would render it almost unreadable to the majority of the population. I suspect that most anglophones are quite happy with writing our language just the way it is. We already have politicians; we probably don’t any more strangers making up arbitrary rules to tell us how to write.
This week, MacDonald’s (of hamburger infamy) is complaining about a new addition to Webster’s dictionary: “McJob”. This is the company who insist on prefixing “Mc” onto the name of practically every item on their menu:
“I’ll have a Big Mac, a McChicken sandwich, some Chicken McNuggets with a McFlurry and I side order of some fucking McSelf Respect please.”
And if you try to order it without the prefix, the counter staff will reply back to you with the “Mc” tacked on, as if they are trying to correct you.
So what does this McWhatever really indicate? The food at McDonalds is generic, after all: burgers; fries; sugary drinks. To me, it’s a slightly risible frisson of branding on top of a product that fails to be outstanding in any respect whatsoever. And that, I suspect, is why Douglas Coupland coined the word “McJob”. A generic, not particularly good but easily available job. That is, after all, what McDonald’s McMarketing has led me to believe.
McDonald’s can whine all they like about how many of their managers started out behind the counter, but isn’t the truth that no one (with the possible exception of morbidly obese junk food addicts) ever dreamed about working in Mickey D’s?
McDonald’s might not like the word McJob. They may believe that it infringes their trademark, and it probably would—if it were to be used in commerce. But like it or not (and they obviously don’t) it’s a word now. It’s part of demotic speech, and that’s why it’s in the dictionary. Descriptive not prescriptive, baby. You can’t censor it out of the language.