x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Is common sense more than a job's worth?

I was reminded the other day of a word that first emerged in English (mainly in Britain) in the mid-1960s: the delightful 'jobsworth'.

One intriguing aspect of any living language (and it probably applies to Latin, too) is the way in which new words and phrases continue to be created. That's what makes it a "living language", after all. Some new words, perhaps originating from translations, can be highly scientific or technical, known only to a few people. Others come fairly rapidly into popular use.

I was reminded the other day of a word that first emerged in English (mainly in Britain) in the mid-1960s: the delightful "jobsworth". It derives from the phrase "I can't do that, it's more than my job's worth." TheOxford English Dictionary defines jobsworth as: "A person in authority (especially a minor official) who insists on adhering to rules and regulations or bureaucratic procedures even at the expense of common sense." It has also been defined as "a minor factotum whose only status comes from enforcing otherwise petty regulations".

So what brought the word to mind?

A couple of weeks ago, a Dubai resident who is a keen photographer of birds, plants and other wildlife paid an early morning visit to one of the local public parks. He arrived at 8am, but by 8.05am he had been ordered to leave. Why? Because he wanted to take some pictures. Not of people, although he was told it was fine if he wanted to photograph his wife and children, but because he wanted to take pictures of birds and insects. He asked if he could use a macro lens, suitable only for close-ups (no possibility there of taking photographs of people who didn't want to be photographed), but that is banned, too.

He was told that the rule had come in a couple of weeks earlier and had, apparently, been introduced because someone had taken lots of nice pictures in the park and had published a book without permission. Does one really need permission to publish photographs taken in a public park?

An online acquaintance of the first person, hearing the story, got hold of the administration section in the park and was referred to the relevant department. An official there yielded the information that if professional photographers pay Dh500 per day, then they can get permission to take pictures in a park.

Taking photographs in public parks is a perfectly normal and harmless pastime - unless it is of people who do not wish to be photographed, and there are plenty of ways of dealing with that. To try to forbid the publication of photographs taken in a public park unless you get prior permission from the park authority seems rather odd. But to dream up a rule whereby you are allowed to take pictures of your family in a public park but can't photograph a butterfly or a passing bird, unless you pay for the privilege of doing so, requires a particular type of thought process that, I must confess, I am completely unable to comprehend.

One could, I suppose, enter the park with a child - your own, perhaps - then position the child close to the flower or insect you want to photograph and then snap away happily, hoping that the park attendant assumed that you were photographing the child. It's not so easy with birds, of course, while in these days of digital cameras, you might get found out very quickly if some jobsworth working in the park demanded to look at your photographs.

It's not an experience I've had myself, but I suspect that it would be rather irritating; I can imagine all sorts of scenarios. A local family enters the park. Daddy takes a few pictures of the wife and children, carefully making sure that, as his wife lifts her veil, no one outside the family is looking. Because there's a nice flower nearby, he takes a picture of that too, and is spotted by a nearby jobsworth, who rushes over demanding to look at the pictures. Daddy refuses - after all, his digital camera has private pictures of his wife on it. The jobsworth calls the police, who promptly arrive. What are they going to do? In a world of common sense, they would simply shrug their shoulders, tell the jobsworth that he was being stupid, and go away.

Another word comes to mind: "pettifogging". Not much in use these days, but one that's still of relevance. It means, "the behaviour of one who quibbles over trivia". Or, to put it another way, the act of making a great fuss over something that is really of very minor importance.

We are fortunate in the UAE that there isn't much evidence of pettifogging rules and regulations, giving "authority" the right to interfere in the minor details of our lives. When such rules do come to light, it's best to get rid of them as soon as possible.

It seems to have been a bit of pettifogging by a jobsworth in a single park that created the original problem in Dubai a couple of weeks ago. One assumes that somehow the new rule hadn't been properly explained to him. I do hope, though, that the rule will be quickly scrapped before there are more problems.

The cooler weather is upon us. Families - and individuals - will be visiting the parks more, and many will have cameras with them, to take pictures of people and of the places themselves, and of the wildlife and plants to be found within them. None of them are likely to take very kindly to being told by pettifogging jobsworths that they're not permitted to do so.


Peter Hellyer is a writer and consultant who specialises in Emirati culture and heritage