Atlantic Cities

The Wildly Variable Definition of 'McMansion'

The Wildly Variable Definition of 'McMansion'

Though it was coined in the 80s, the term "McMansion" didn't really catch on until the late 1990s. It took hold – arguably by descriptive necessity – because significantly larger homes were popping up in subdivisions and gated communities around the country. The average home size grew from 1,500 square feet in 1970 to more than 2,000 in 1990, eventually peaking at 2,521 in 2007.

As homes grew, many, many journalists, commentators, pundits, and critics began to characterize them with this new epithet, a jab at what many see as a tacky or overly-consumerist style. But it turns out that the people using the term didn't really have a good idea about what, precisely, it meant.

Brian Miller is a sociologist at Wheaton College who's been studying housing and suburban development. He began to notice that the term McMansion was being used to describe wildly different things.

"There's not a single process of McMansions going on," says Miller. "Sure, there are big houses across the United States, but not everyone's seeing them the same way or talking about them the same way."

Miller recently conducted a study on the use of the term in newspaper articles. He tracked every time the word McMansion appeared in both the New York Times and the Dallas Morning News from the beginning of 2000 to the end of 2009. The term appeared in 637 articles in the New York Times and 173 articles in the Dallas Morning News, with peak occurrence in late 2005. By contrast, it made only 27 appearances in both papers between 1990 and the end of 1999.

Miller analyzed each instance to try to understand how it was being used, and found that the term McMansion tended to fall into one of four general meanings: a large house, a relatively large house, a home with bad architecture or design, or a symbol for other issues, especially sprawl and consumerism. Most often, McMansion simply referred to a large house.

"But what constitutes a large house isn’t clear either," says Miller. "You have people who would suggest that 3,000-square-foot homes are McMansions. Well, it's 500 square feet more than the average new home, but that’s a lot different from other people who are describing 10,000-square-foot homes as McMansions."

Miller says that based on his analysis, the usage of the term is often a judgment call, and almost always negative.

Of the 637 instances of McMansion in the New York Times, 455 of them (or about 71 percent) were written by journalists as opposed to sources interviewed for articles. In the Dallas Morning News, 93 of the 173 mentions (about half) were by journalists.

"In Dallas, you had a lot more readers quoted using this term, both negatively and actually some in positive terms," says Miller. "There was actually a decent sized group of people in Dallas who did not use this totally as a negative term. Whereas New York City, it was pretty much completely negative."

But though Dallas may be more accepting of larger homes in general, that doesn't mean Texans like the word. "I don’t think there's too many homeowners that walk around calling their own homes McMansions," Miller says.

But to many, those homes are McMansions. Who's right is a matter of place and audience. There's no consensus on exactly what a McMansion is, it seems to be one of those things that you know when you see it.

Photo credit: Jennie Book /Shutterstock

Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for The Atlantic Cities. He lives in Los Angeles. All posts »

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