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I'm not sure about the meaning of desk warrior, as it appears in this passage taken from The Economist (my boldface emphasis):

Those [South Korean students, my note] who score well can enter one of Korea’s best universities, which has traditionally guaranteed them a job-for-life as a high-flying bureaucrat or desk warrior at a chaebol (conglomerate).

I cannot find it in the dictionaries at my disposal. It seems to me that it is a sort of ironic or even disapproving epithet for a particular kind of white collar employees who hold a position of some responsibility.

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up vote 1 down vote accepted

Desk warrior is a similar phrase to desk jockey, a mildly dismissive term for someone working in a faceless office job. It is an ironic usage, as warrior and jockey evoke more active or glamorous occupations, although desk jockey was probably originally a play on disc jockey. Other slang terms for office workers include corporate drones, cubicle rats, or office monkeys.

There are many connotations to draw; depending on the context, an office worker may be

  • a mere "cog in the machine," a forgettable or ignorable part of a giant heartless machine
  • someone who working in administration as opposed to "real" work in the field, e.g. a hospital director as opposed to a surgeon, a university provost as opposed to a professor, or a soldier or police officer assigned to work in the office
  • a bureaucrat, someone who insists on routines and procedures at the expense of the "big picture"

or something else.

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That's what I thought at first, but if you read the entire article I think you'll see that they're saying "desk warrior" as a GOOD thing. The article is about how so much rides on the Korean university exams. – Lynn Jun 5 '12 at 17:06
@Lynn Being a desk warrior at a chaebol is certainly a good thing, at least in South Korea. My Korean grandparents would be prouder of the grandchild in middle management for a subsidiary of an LG or Kumho than the one who is an entrepreneur. The desirability is related to social status, not the quality of life of a salaryman. – choster Jun 5 '12 at 17:32
Agreed. So... in the OP's context, the idea that someone can be virtually guaranteed a job as a "desk warrior at a chaebol" seems in contradiction to your answer equating the term with desk jockey / cog in the machine. Unless I'm missing something. – Lynn Jun 5 '12 at 17:35
@Lynn What The Economist considers a good thing and what South Korean society considers a good thing are not necessarily congruent. – choster Jun 5 '12 at 18:32

I've never heard that particular phrase before, but based on the context it appears to be a clever twist on road warrior.

A road warrior is a corporate employee who spends a lot of time on the road traveling. Desk warrior would be, by extension, a corporate employee who spends a lot of time at their desk.

Generally road warriors are not a very envied position, but urban dictionary reports that the term road warrior is sometimes used "...to glamorize, romanticize and/or rationalize their lonely profession..." It seems like the author is using the term in this context.

In a nutshell - if the students do well on their exams they get a prestigious position as a "high-flying bureaucrat or desk warrior", but if they fail their exams they are relegated to a lesser position.

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The use of desk as an adjective, modifying a more "glamorous" noun, is sometimes used to describe those who spend most of their working day behind a desk. Such terminology is often used to deride or sympathize with the one who is tied to the desk, instead of where the action is.

In addition to desk warrior, I've also seen desk pilot (particularly common in flying squadons), and desk jockey (which this Ngram says is most common of the three).

But when are you going to get it through your bureaucratic heads that I am a scientist? A field man, not a damned desk pilot! (Ian Douglas)

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