"Being jobsworths about it"

« previous post | next post »

I learned a new word today from David Millward and Steven Swinford, "BAA 'refused offers of help clearing snow'", The Telegraph 12/21/2010:

Another senior airline executive added:"Airlines were getting frustrated at stands not being cleared. They said let's do it, we will do it ourselves and BAA said no, they would not let airlines do their job for them. They were being jobsworths about it."

The OED's gloss:

Brit. colloq. (depreciative). A person in authority (esp. a minor official) who insists on adhering to rules and regulations or bureaucratic procedures even at the expense of common sense.

I'm puzzled that this useful word hasn't made it across the Atlantic. One issue may be that we don't really have the fixed expression that it's based on, "Sorry, I can't let you ___, it's more than me job's worth", meaning "I'd lose my job if I let you do that".


  1. Scot W. Stevenson said,

    December 22, 2010 @ 10:19 pm

    Americans should know the phrase, little Americans, at least: In the first volume of Harry Potter, Hagrid refuses to tell Harry what's in the Vault 713 of the wizards' bank with a "more'n than my job's worth" (p. 57 in our hardcover edition). Just read it with my daughter.

  2. swami said,

    December 22, 2010 @ 10:22 pm

    When I was studying in Germany I learned of the colloquialism Überzwerg, or super-dwarf; typically a minor official who uses petty rules and regulations to make life uncomfortable for those he has power over. I learned about the word the hard way. My friends (both German and American) and I were coming back from a trip on an empty train in the middle of the night. Halfway through, the train conductor discovered we had an "inappropriate" ticket for the train we were on, even though the price was the same (results of different ticket issuing agents).

    After 20 minutes of arguing, he gave us an ultimatum: each of us buy another €50 "correct" ticket, be arrested for schwarzfahren, or exit the train at a closed station in the middle of winter three hours from our destination.

    So we got off the train with the appropriate rude physical gestures, found a hostel, and had one hell of a spite party. Then we caught the right train the next day with our still-valid tickets. Since then I've been trying to find a succinct English translation for Überzwerg, and now my search is complete.

  3. JMM said,

    December 22, 2010 @ 11:53 pm

    I'm not sure that uberzwerg and jobsworth are exactly synonyms. I think I have met both, and the former are much more vile, and the latter are more difficult (the good ones don't even let you be angry at them.). I'm adding both to my vocabulary.

  4. Terrence Lockyer said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 1:17 am

    The word "jobsworth" probably gained some added currency from the comic song by Jeremy Taylor: http://youtube.com/watch?v=fz44_Sp0K8A

  5. Victoria Martin said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 1:19 am

    I agree with JMM. An Überzwerg actively enjoys the exercise of power (my husband refers to the Überzwerg who runs the local municipal dump as "der Müllhitler"), whereas a jobsworth is trying to avoid having to do anything that would require effort on their part. They both exploit the apparatus of officialdom, but to different ends.

  6. Peter said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 1:33 am

    Yes — the difference between a jobsworth and an Überzwerg is the difference between selfishness and spitefulness. Both marvellous words.

  7. Barrie England said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 2:30 am

    I see that the OED’s second citation for ‘jobsworth’ is from the BBC TV show ‘That’s Life’ in 1982. That’s where I first heard it.

  8. Sollers said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 2:48 am

    The term gained popularity in the UK some decades ago as a result of Esther Rantzen's television programme (sorry, can't remember its name) where a "Jobsworth Award" of a gold-coloured cap was made each week for particularly egregious examples that were brought to her attention.

  9. Yerushalmi said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 5:18 am

    I actually first learned the word from a Jasper Fforde novel (I forget which one, but it might have been the bonus chapter in the US edition of "The Well of Lost Plots") in which a character is named Senator Jobsworth.

  10. Chris Hunt said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 6:03 am

    As I recollect, the strand in That's Life about "jobsworths" was started with a rendition, by one of the presenters, of the song referred to by Terrence Lockyer. Until today, I'd always assumed that it was written specifically for the programme.

    A similar term, for somebody whose possession of a uniform gives them delusions of power, is "tin hitler".

  11. A Jack said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 7:13 am

    Much in the vein of "I could care less" actually being an inversion of the logical, I find "It's more than my job's worth" to be upside-down.

    Surely, it is the job that is worth more (and so not worth losing) than the act that the jobsworth would otherwise be permitting?

    [(myl) I don't think that's right. A variant form is "It's as much as my job's worth to do X", meaning, I suppose, that doing X would be taken in trade for the job: do X, lose the job; omit X, keep the job. If doing X is more than the job's worth, then to balance your karmic account for doing X, you'd lose the job and still have have a debt to pay.]

  12. Ben Hemmens said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 7:20 am

    (esp. a minor official) who insists on adhering to rules and regulations

    Nowhere in the world does minor officials better than Austria, and here we have the proverbial reply to a request or a new idea
    Das hamma immer so gemacht (we've always done it that way)
    Das hamma noch nie so gemacht (we've never done it like that)
    Da könnt a jeder kommen (if we make an exception for you, everyone will want one)

  13. Ian Preston said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 8:32 am

    @A Jack: I find "It's more than my job's worth" to be upside-down.

    I always took it to be a reference to the worth to the employer not the employee. In other words, "It's more than my job's worth" means "the cost to my employer of my doing that would exceed the worth of employing me (and therefore I'd lose my job)".

  14. Mr Punch said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 9:17 am

    I agree with Mark L. that the fixed expression is lacking in the US; without it, "jobsworth" is indecipherable. "Tin Hitler" (@ Chris Hunt) is presumably a version of "little tin god [on wheels]" which also has a song, by Don Henley.

    [(myl) The OED's first citation for tin "fig. in reference to tin as a base metal, esp. in comparison with silver: Mean, petty, worthless, counterfeit" is

    1886 R. Kipling Departm. Ditties (1899) 24 The Little Tin Gods harried their little tin souls.

    But a quick Google Books search turns up this from Cambridge MA in 1879.]

  15. D.O. said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 9:33 am

    I guess we can deploy a new toy, Google Ngrams, to look at this in perspective. Collocation "job worth" was around in BrE pretty much always, but especially from 1900 onward with peaks in 40s and 90s. What was exact meaning of it, the Toy cannot tell. Jobsworth started off in 1980 and sprang in use quite rapidly. In AmE collocation "job worth" is in more or less constant use from 1920s (with some fluctuations, of course), while jobsworth starting in 1980 and rapidly growing. AmE/BrE usage of jobsworth is at 1/5 level.

  16. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 10:36 am

    No hint of "The bribe you give me for that would have to be more than my job's worth?" Like MYL's explanation but more tangible.

    I think that in the original example and in most examples I've seen, bureaucrat would be fine in AmE.

  17. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 10:37 am

    Sorry, reversed the quotation mark and the question mark. I know what happens when you do that here.

  18. Megs said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 10:51 am

    @Scot and @Mr Punch

    I'm in Colorado area and the PHRASE about my job's worth is known. But even so, I was totally bewildered at the WORD. Made nada sense to me. To me, it's not an obvious leap.

  19. Martin Keegan said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 11:10 am

    It would be interesting to know whether the use of the term correlated at all with the proportion of the economy sheltered from market forces.

  20. 4ndyman said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 2:21 pm

    AmE (and BrE, for that matter) does have the word "martinet" to describe someone who rigidly adheres to rules and regulations. That seems synonymous to me.

  21. Peter Taylor said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 3:03 pm

    A martinet is highly disciplined. The defining feature of a jobsworth is apathy about customer service. The term can be applied equally to a bureaucrat who invents rules and regulations to justify laziness.

  22. TonyK said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 4:10 pm

    @D.O.: I've known the word all my (speaking) life, which means from the early 60's. I'm sure that 1980 is too late.

    [(myl) The OED's earliest citation is from 1970:

    1970 Melody Maker 12 Sept. 29/4 If you are a taxi-driver, jobsworth or policeman, you will now be able to understand hippie lingo.

    Google Books doesn't turn up anything earlier than that.]

  23. Karl Weber said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 4:25 pm

    "Tin Hitler" sounds quite parallel to the more recent "Soup Nazi," though of course the original Seinfeld character was not a bureaucrat rigidly enforcing someone's else's rules but a small business owner choosing to be arbitrary for his own unfathomable reasons.

  24. Nelida said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 6:26 pm

    Wonderful additions to my vocab, thanks for sharing. A glaring recent example of jobsworths (in Montevideo, Uruguay): the union of municipal garbage collectors who were striking with unreasonable demands, and so let some 30 thou tons of garbage pile up. Until the city mayor declared the service "essential" (which implies penalties on workers not showing up for work) and ordered the troops to go out and help clean up the mess.

  25. Petemck said,

    December 23, 2010 @ 7:08 pm

    I remember the song by UK folk-singer Jeremy Taylor from the late 1960s:
    Jobsworth, Jobsworth, It's more than me job's worth,
    I don't care, rain or snow,
    whatever you want the answer's no,
    I can keep you waiting for hours in the queue,
    and if you don't like it you know what you can do.


  26. Graham Asher said,

    December 24, 2010 @ 7:17 am

    'Jobsworth' (which is relatively new to BrE – I was mystified myself when I first heard it about 20 years ago) is paralleled by 'sod the public' – an attitude often ascribed to people and organisations and written about memorably by Kingsley Amis. I don't suppose that's made it to America either: feel free to borrow it; I expect you have as much need of it as we do.

  27. Michael Peverett said,

    December 24, 2010 @ 10:02 am

    The continuing universal (UK) currency of "jobsworth" (especially in the workplace) means that the expression on which it is based has become much less common, because hardly anyone now could use it without self-conscious irony. But once the expression no longer exists at all, I suppose its offshoot will also wither away. Even today, the use of "jobsworth" suggests a speaker's age of 50 rather than 25.

    "More than my job's worth" is analogous to "more than my life's worth" , accompanied by a sharp intake of breath as if the proposed course of action would be supremely risky, involving job or life being laid on the line. I interpret it as intended (tho not necessarily sincerely) to excuse oneself on grounds of humility – my job is worth so little ( I'm such a junior) that I couldn't possibly authorize the kind of lordly behaviour you're proposing (whereas Mr Charles on the board of directors might "take it upon himself" to do so). Thus there is no reversal of meaning – the proposed lordly behaviour is indeed worth more than my lowly job. – is extravagant, loose, "rich", in the old sense of impetuous, impertinent, cheeky…

    As usual when we trace British usage back a generation or two, social class becomes a predominant concern!

  28. Coby Lubliner said,

    December 25, 2010 @ 1:23 pm

    Graham Asher: 'sod the public' … I don't suppose that's made it to America either.

    But we have the venerable the public be damned, reportedly uttered in 1882 by William Vanderbilt.

  29. Terry Collmann said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 11:08 am

    Graham Asher – "'Jobsworth' (which is relatively new to BrE – I was mystified myself when I first heard it about 20 years ago) " – as the OED citation quoted by myl four comments above yours shows, the expression has been around for at least four decades, and was popularised – perhaps even invented – by the Melody Maker journalist Chris Welch, who used the term to describe elderly minor functionaries at theatres, dancehalls and other places used as venues for pop and rock concerts who would refuse to allow, for example, music press journalists access to areas "forbidden" to the public, or some similar petty exercise of authority, on the grounds that it was, as has been previously stated, "more than my job's worth" to grant them permission. My first encounter with the term was indeed in the Melody Maker, in an article written by Welch, but (I am pretty certain) in 1968 or 1969 rather than 1970.

  30. Fernando Pereira said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 2:51 pm

    Hum… I learned the term from the Esther Rantzen "That's Life" show when I attended graduate school in Edinburgh. However, the meaning I learned then from British friends was that the functionary was being asked to do something that the functionary felt had higher value than what the functionary was being paid for the job. That seemed also the main story in Rantzen's "National Jobsworth Award", where the functionary would not lift a finger to help the citizen beyond what was specified in the work rules negotiated between the functionary's union and the employer. Typical cases involved dealings with British Telecom installers who would not adjust their procedures to accommodate the customer's needs.

  31. Graham Asher said,

    December 28, 2010 @ 12:13 pm

    @Terry Collman: yeah, but just because a word is cited somewhere doesn't mean it's well known, does it? I was never interested in pop music and never read the Melody Maker, so I suppose I wasn't among the people who encountered it early. Words are adopted gradually at first; the classic S-curve. Some time in the 70s someone said 'cheers' to me meaning 'thank you' and I looked at him oddly because he didn't seem to be holding a drink. A few years later I was saying it myself. Now (of course) I am trying to shake it off.

RSS feed for comments on this post