15

In Swedish, we've got a term that loosely translates as paragraph jockey. It refers to a person, often a clerk or a referee, who is following all the rules, prescriptions and agreements ad absurdum. The application is slightly derogatory but not vulgar.

In many cases, the term is used when a referee or a bureaucrat makes a call and, while being correct rule-wise, they miss the point of the system that the said rule is made to support.

The result of such call or decision may vary from non-essential, insignificant changes up to a totally weird and unintended destruction of the greater good.

Is there a term like that in English? My google-fu gave me Jack-in-office but when I wrote that to a friend, they didn't get the point at all.

  • @snailboat What is a common term? Do you mean just an informal one? If so, then yes, that's what I'm looking for. If common term is a grammatical, or at least recognized, term itself (such as proper noun is not really a proper something because asshole is technically a proper noun without being a proper noun to use in most circumstances), that I don't know what that means, specifically. – Konrad Viltersten May 16 '15 at 21:58
  • @snailboat In that case - yes, I'm looking for a common term. And I believe that sticker is our winner, here. As for Dan Bron's term - well, he says himself that it's very unlikely to be understood by the vast audience so we can sure count that out as a common let alone helpful choice of word (helpful, as in, making it easier for the recipient to understand, that is - the reply itself is indeed helpful because it learned us something about the English language). – Konrad Viltersten May 16 '15 at 23:39
  • Would the rigid, rule-bound behavior typical of computer programs, like the fact that this question doesn't appear under "Related", illustrate the kind of thing you have in mind? – Ben Kovitz May 17 '15 at 1:18
  • @BenKovitz Well, yes and no. The type of behavior exhibited by computers would be what I'm aiming at except that it's their intended and intrinsic pattern. We, humans, are supposed to be able to judge the circumstances in a wider, not beforehand foreseen, way and hence adapt to the unexpected events. So the term is really for humans that behave in a (for human beings) too strict way. As for the related question that you linked to - I can't see how it relates except being about rules' breaking/following. – Konrad Viltersten May 17 '15 at 1:46
  • 'Stick in the mud' is the term that immediately comes to mind. – Michael Durrant May 17 '15 at 17:19
11

I have never heard the phrase "Jack-in-office" before. There are lots of words that are close to what you explained, but not exactly what you describe.

Following the rules very closely, while missing the point of these rules is called "Following the letter of the law, not the spirit." This is a very common expression. To my knowledge, there is no word for a person who does this.

Another word that is close to what you are explaining is "stickler". However, a stickler generally refers to somebody who follows and enforces the rules under any circumstances, not somebody who's missing the point of the rules. For example, a professor who refuses to accept a test because it was turned in 1 minute late would be called a stickler. Stickler is also slightly derogatory, but not vulgar. It's also informal.

Some related words from this thesaurus page are "perfectionist", "nitpicker", and "disciplinarian". These are all related, but I think stickler is closer to the word you are looking for.

  • 1
    Yeah, I haven't ever heard the phrase "Jack-in-office" either. – Codeswitcher May 16 '15 at 21:53
  • Actually, as I think about it, the Swedish term doesn't preclude such a person from generally following the rules. It just implies that there's a likelyhood of the following to be unproportionally strict. So I think you've got the answer. I'll take the liberty in emphasising it in your reply in a way that I would find most helpful. Feel free to rephrase, should you feel like it. – Konrad Viltersten May 16 '15 at 21:54
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    (AmE) @KonradViltersten I don't understand "stickler", without context, to mean a rule-bound person who doesn't understand when to adjust or suspend a rule because its purpose isn't served in a situation. Usually "stickler" is followed by "for", as in "a stickler for detail", "a stickler for accuracy", and it refers to maintaining a high standard regarding the specified kind of thing. It does not carry a pejorative connotation by itself; that depends on what follows "for". "A stickler for the rules" might sometimes serve for what you have in mind, but not just "stickler" by itself. – Ben Kovitz May 17 '15 at 1:27
  • @BenKovitz I might have been to quick to accept the reply. However (and I'm in no way questioning your language skills), once I've sent the same message to my colleagues and exchange Jack-in-office for stickler, everybody seemed to have gotten the point. That could, of course, depend on the context. Even if I don't specify the nature by for..., it's still obvious that I'm not praising the subject of my message. – Konrad Viltersten May 17 '15 at 1:50
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    @KonradViltersten BTW, here's an illustration of how "stickler" is used positively: "a stickler for journalistic integrity". – Ben Kovitz May 17 '15 at 5:06
10

Jobsworth

A common term (in Scotland) for someone who follows the rules ad absurdum (as you eloquently state).

Jobsworths are the unreasonably petty sort who appear to lack initiative and sound judgement, and there's always one nearby.

  • Any thoughts on where that term originates? Also, how localized to Scotland is the understanding of the term (not usage, as it probably is only used there, but the grasp of the concept)? (As in: most people understand what a lory even if they'd call it a truck.) – Konrad Viltersten May 17 '15 at 11:39
  • Ooops, sorry. I meant, of course lorry. Not many people would view a lory as a truck unless a new species will be discovered and taxonomized in a weird way. – Konrad Viltersten May 17 '15 at 11:42
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    Wikipedia claims jobsworth is a British colloquial term, rather than a specifically Scottish one. That sounds right to me; I'm English and have used the term and heard it used, and it was my first thought when I saw this question. I honestly had no idea until now that the word was even specific to British English; I'm pretty sure it isn't specific to Scottish English, since I'm not Scottish and I use it. – Mark Amery May 17 '15 at 12:01
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    @MarkAmery Note that PCARR didn't claim that jobsworth is exclusively Scottish. He only said that it's used in Scotland, not mentioning if it ends there. I can see how the implicit sense might be inferred but as a math geek I'm comfortable stating that "Swedish males are mammals", although that can be interpreted wrongly... – Konrad Viltersten May 17 '15 at 14:45
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    It sounds like with a little more research, this could be an excellent answer. I (native AmE) had never heard the word before, but it might be the phrase closest in meaning to what the question asks for. – Ben Kovitz May 17 '15 at 18:43
7

The correct and proper answer is, of course, a:

pedantic martinet

warning: that this is the correct answer does not preclude it from being utterly useless. I challenge you to ask 10 native speakers on the street what a "martinet" is ;)

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    @DJMcMayhem My answer was intentionally tongue-in-cheek: it provided a technically correct answer from a pedant's rule-abiding perspective, while ignoring the reality that the answer is at the same time useless. In other words, it's a bureaucrat's kind of answer. – Dan Bron May 16 '15 at 21:42
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    Oh, I see so you were answering like a "pedantic martinet"? – DJMcMayhem May 16 '15 at 21:43
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    Cheer up, there are exceptions! You may yet be both. – Tᴚoɯɐuo May 17 '15 at 10:55
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    @snailboat No problem at all; I don't mind. But the answer, while a joke, is also legitimate. – Dan Bron May 17 '15 at 14:27
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    I think pedantic martinet is a funny answer; I think this overall answer could have been much more useful had it been balanced with a more commonly-used term to go with it. Just my 2 cents. – J.R. May 17 '15 at 18:47
6

We don't. I mean, we didn't but do now: I'm guessing the next time this issue comes up, "paragraph jockey" will spring to my lips, so thanks for the contribution to English!

We have various words and expressions to mean someone who is a stickler about rules, very disciplined or strict in following them, but, no, as far as I know, English doesn't have a pejorative term for someone who is concerned with the rules to a fault and, hoo boy, does that tell you something about our culture.

But while we don't have a term for the person, we do have one idiom for the behavior: missing the forest for the trees. It's not a good match for your usage case of a referee making a bad calls, but it does mean losing sight of the bigger picture because of over-focus on details.

Other terms which may be of use include the adjectives doctrinaire, fanatical, inflexible, obstinate, and mulish. None of these capture the sense of following rules, but they do have the sense of being unwilling to compromise sensibly.

  • +1 for hoo boy self-distance comment. I understand you mean that the culture is law-obeying and extremely orderly one, right? Naa, I get your real point. You refer to the bunch of sticklers and PJ's... The last abbreviation (of paragraph jockey) is intentionally chosen to collide with nightly clothing. Just to tease up all the sticklers out there... – Konrad Viltersten May 16 '15 at 23:32
  • I also heartily welcome paragraph jockey into the English language. It beats every other alternative I've come up with, and I've been racking my brain and thesaurus for about an hour now. – Ben Kovitz May 17 '15 at 13:52
6

A survey of terms that are almost but not quite right
Including an explanation of what’s wrong with each one of them

I can't think of a good noun for the kind of person you're talking about, despite having been fascinated by this particular kind of irrationality for years.

English does have a precise adjective for this mentality. Such a person is said to be rule-bound. But when you want a derogatory name to call someone, only a noun will do.

English does have plenty of nouns for people with this mentality, but all that I can think of are restricted in scope. A language lawyer or grammar Nazi is someone who is obsessed with following dictionaries' or grammatical authorities' pronouncements on language usage, thinking of language as a system of strict rules rather than a tradition always open to reasonable extensions and variations. Rules lawyer and rules Nazi are the same, but restricted to games. A fuss-budget refuses to compromise about small things, but this term doesn't emphasize official or articulated rules; instead it suggests only that the person is fussy about things that are idiosyncratic as well as unimportant. A literalist applies the letter of rules, ignoring their spirit, but this applies to any use of words, not just rules. For example, a "Biblical literalist" insists that the Bible is a literally true record of history rather than a collection of legends and traditional wisdom stories. A pedant insists on observing technicalities or esoteric senses of words that are mostly of academic interest, even in situations where practicality or the words' everyday meanings are clearly most relevant.

I've said "civil servants of science" to a couple friends and the meaning has been clear, but it's better suited to the UK than the US, and it requires an "of" to indicate a specific domain of application. If you just call someone a civil servant or bureaucrat, that suggests what you want, but it focuses on their occupation, not their mentality. Also, I think it's unkind to the people who perform those jobs in good faith and with common sense. People who do those jobs create stability that is extremely valuable and seldom appreciated. The overzealous application of rules should be distinguished from jobs that inherently involve rules.

A stickler for X is someone who is intransigent about X, but this does not by itself imply the kind of pusillanimous literality that you suggest. It suggests courage to uphold a higher standard in something than most people do, even, or especially, in situations not explicitly covered by rules or authority. Whether that's irrational depends on what the stickler is a stickler for. For example, a stickler for journalistic integrity (see this) maintains high standards of journalistic integrity where many journalists would cheat or compromise, while a stickler for form insists on observing rules or formalities even when reasonable people would normally bend or skip them. A stickler for rules (note the lack of an article) is dogmatic about following rules even in situations where their purpose isn't served, simply because they're "rules". A stickler for the rules suggests a person who insists on following the rules of a specific type of activity; that might be admirable or narrow-minded, depending on the rules and the situation.

By itself, a stickler is a referee who breaks up a fight, but this sense is obsolete. What all sticklers have in common is that their insistence on a high standard causes pain or annoyance to others. When you derisively call someone a stickler because their holding to a high standard caused you annoyance, without specifying what they're a stickler for, you convey that you are against any kind of high standard or integrity at all, regardless of the matter. In other words, merely calling someone a stickler as if that alone were enough to merit derision, suggests that the speaker is careless, spineless, corrupt, apathetic, a fence-rider, a cheater, a slacker, a rationalizer of petty iniquities, or any of the various synonyms for the flaw opposite the one you described—probably not what you intend.

After surveying as many alternatives as I could find, I would be delighted to see paragraph jockey gain currency in English. English is a big language, though. Maybe someone else knows of a good noun that's already well-established.

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    hmm, too many choices to actually know what I would be voting on for this answer. Detail is nice but brevity and clarity as to the main answer is key too. This answer ends with Maybe someone else knows of a good noun that's already well-established. – Michael Durrant May 17 '15 at 17:21
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    @MichaelDurrant Upvoting means that you think the answer is "useful", not that you think it states the one term that fulfills the OP's request. Hold your mouse over the up-arrow button and the tool-tip will explain it. The point of this answer is to clearly spell out what's wrong with all the terms that fail, especially "stickler". – Ben Kovitz May 17 '15 at 17:28
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    As I was reading your answer, the phrase "someone who follows the letter of the law, not the spirit of the law" came to mind. It doesn't answer the O.P.'s quest for a descriptive noun referring to the person, but it does refer to the practice. I think it's related closely enough that it's at least worth mentioning in a comment. – J.R. May 17 '15 at 18:52
3

I think DJ McMayhem is probably right to say that stickler is the best general term.

However, you can be a stickler about more than just rules. The example there refers to being a stickler about language. We also call these people grammar-nazis. You could also be a stickler about cleanliness or manners. However, these are all really just examples of specific types of rules. To be more specific, you would call someone a "stickler-for-language" or a "stickler-for-rules" and so on.

Another term no one has mentioned yet is authoritarian:

  1. One who follows and is excessively obedient to authority.

If someone is a stickler for administrative rules and red tape, I would say that they are an authoritarian.

3

Apparatchik is the noun I might reach for, depending on the context. It's not a precise fit for the definition you're looking for—I wish paragraph jockey or jobsworth were common in American English—but I believe there is some useful overlap with apparatchik. It literally means a low-level communist bureaucrat, a functionary in the party apparatus. But as borrowed in English, it connotes a cog in the machine, a useless person invested with authority, whose only competence is obeying orders.

Another related but slightly off-the-mark term is petty tyrant. That implies more of an abuse of meager authority than letter-of-the-law shortsightedness, but it doesn't preclude an obsession with the rules either.

  • Apparatchik is a good suggestion and you've explained it well. The only thing I might add to your answer is a more explicit explanation of where the term falls on the negative/neutral/positive spectrum. (Showing how a term is used in a sentence is almost never a bad idea though ) I think that there is a sense that an apparatchik is blindly loyal to an organization, and not necessarily interested in following the letter of the law in general. – ColleenV Jun 30 '17 at 18:22
  • In its historical context, I imagine it would be mostly neutral, but as borrowed by English, it's hard to imagine it being used in anything other than a negative way. That's a good point that it's more about loyalty than inflexibility. – sqlsourcerer Jun 30 '17 at 18:50
1

Much related to the Grammar Nazi, the Rules Nazi:

A Rule Nazi is someone who insists on his or her own strict interpretation of the rules of a game, even if the other players collectively disagree. Usually, a Rule Nazi will become petulant if the other players do not yield to his or her viewpoint.

  • Rule Nazi is only used by some people, and generally only in the context described, in board games or other table top games. – user6951 May 17 '15 at 6:10
1

In Swedish, we've got a term that... refers to a person, often a clerk or a referee, who is following all the rules, prescriptions and agreements ad absurdum. The application is slightly derogatory but not vulgar... the term is used when a referee or a bureaucrat makes a call and, while being correct rule-wise, they miss the point of the system that the said rule is made to support. The result of such call or decision may vary from non-essential, insignificant changes up to a totally weird and unintended destruction of the greater good.

Is there a term like that in English?

The other guys already gave you good words for referees and bosses ('stickler', 'jobsworth', 'martinet', 'petty tyrant') although, yeah, 'missing the forest for the trees' is closer to what you mean as far as the letter versus the spirit of the law.

I'll just note (a) that you might think of or refer to someone as a 'stickler for the rules' and tell them to their face not to be one, but you wouldn't usually just say 'you're being a stickler' as a pejorative challenge. It's just not how the term fits into the language.

(b) Since no one else has mentioned it yet, there's a lovely term for a scholarly or religious pedant:

sumpsimus

  1. adherence to or persistence in using a strictly correct term in rejection of a more common (but technically incorrect) form.

  2. a person obstinate or zealous about such correctness; a pedant.

Particularly on the internet, it's rather common to run into people who think being technically correct is the best form of correct... or at least worth affecting in order to farm some of that sweet sweet rep/karma/&c.

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