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Jobsworth

Jobsworth is a censorious British term for an official who upholds rules at the expense of humanity or common sense.

How on earth could we have created a system that allows a little jobsworth social worker to throw his weight around in this absurdly dehumanised way, which makes a complete mockery of the claim that the system’s only concern is to put “the interests of the child” first?

Sunday Telegraph, 13 Oct. 2013.

Jobsworth has been in use since the early 1970s, sometimes in the mock polite form Mr Jobsworth (jobsworths are usually presumed to be male). The BBC television programme That’s Life! popularised it in the early 1980s through its creation of the Jobsworth Award for obstructionism beyond the call of duty. Esther Rantzen, the show’s presenter, said that it was for “the stupidest rule and the official who stamps on the most toes to uphold it”.

In origin jobsworth is a neatly abbreviated reference to it’s more than my job’s worth, either the ostensible excuse for his action by a minor functionary delighted to be able to use his authority to thwart his fellows or the cry of someone frightened of using his initiative and risking his position. The longer expression is well enough known that when Howard Lester collected examples of jobsworths at work in a book in 2012 he did so under that title.

It began to appear at the beginning of the twentieth century, though in this early example the policeman isn’t a jobsworth but he is afraid that a rule-bending good turn will attract the ire of his superior:

The policeman wheeled round again and spoke in a hurried whisper. “You can’t do it now, sir,” he said. “The inspector’s coming along. It’s more than my job’s worth if he sees you. You walk round and come back again in five minutes. Quick now, sir.”

The Compleat Oxford Man, by Arthur Hamilton Gibbs, 1911.

Page created 23 Nov. 2013

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Last modified: 23 November 2013.