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In modern business speak one increasingly sees the phrase "Road Warrior" used to refer to people who spend a lot of their time travelling for work.

Looking at it independentaly this seems a bit of an odd term. I mean...first up the road part- most of the time the people this refers to are flying around the world, it isn't used to refer to those who drive to suppliers a few km away.

Secondly the warrior part- a bit violent isn't it? Not exactly a good image for your business...particularly sales.

So why is it then that this term is used? Where does it come from?

The only possible bell that rings in my head is the big obvious one of the rather brilliant Mad Max film. But, as good a film as that is I am somewhat doubtful that it had such an impact on the world's major businesses. Surely the term has to be older than that? Where did it come from?

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    I believe this one is from Mad Max, but there's all kinds of other terms we append "warrior' to. We all need to feel heroic from time to time, don't we?
    – user98990
    Commented Apr 30, 2015 at 8:36
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    Back in the 70s, I worked for Sanyo in Watford, a town near London where motorways and A-roads tangle. I was amused that every morning, young bloods who'd driven from nearby towns talked animatedly about their difficult journey. Although they complained about the jams, it was obvious that they saw each day's commute as going into battle. Commented Apr 30, 2015 at 8:46
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    In his novel "Market Forces", Richard (K) Morgan takes David Garner's idea and runs with it, probably further than the young bloods would want it to go. "Executive advancement in 2049 is not based on merit or politics alone, rather executives can issue challenges to each other which are held on highways emptied of cars and usually fought to the death, in a fashion similar to Mad Max, a source cited as inspiration by the author in the acknowledgements of the book." (Wiki)
    – David Pugh
    Commented Apr 30, 2015 at 10:34
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    I venture that road warrior was first popularized for traveling sales representatives, who in the U.S. can indeed drive tens of thousands of miles in a season, but more importantly the road is also a general metaphor for travel. I can be on the road in a helicopter, sailboat, steam locomotive, dirtbike, and many other non-roadbound means of transportation. Second, a road warrior isn't attacking customers, but the *road*— she is someone unafraid of travel, despite its inherent perils.
    – choster
    Commented Apr 30, 2015 at 14:47

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At the computer magazines where I've worked, writers used "road warrior" constantly—almost reflexively—in stories about laptops, smartphones, and every other mobile-device category you can think of. We tried a couple of times to impose moratoriums on its use, but enforcing even a temporary ban proved impossible.

The draw was, in the first place, that the demographic that wrote stories for us (and that read our magazines) loved the Mad Max franchise. Some movies emerge as cultural touchstones for a particular audience, and in our magazines, authors simply assumed that every reader was a fan of Mad Max, Blade Runner, Back to the Future, and of course Star Wars.

Another point of attraction, I suspect, was the idea that people whose work entails lots of travel like to think of themselves as rugged individualists, as world-weary good guys, and perhaps secretly as mythic figures. Also, many of them are okay with reading that in intrepidness of spirit they resemble a young Mel Gibson. And anyway doesn't the fact that they are reading a review of a portable, wireless scanner prove that the "road warrior" label fits them like shrinkwrap?

But perhaps the main reason authors used it (over and over and over) was that, once it got established, it was the first idea that popped into their heads in connection with travelers and mobile technology. That's the way clichés work: They catch on because they seem clever or apt, and then they won't go away because any author who is operating on auto-pilot can summon them up with zero mental effort—and does. That's how you get "bells and whistles" everywhere.

Most business travelers don't think their lifestyle qualifies them as death-defying survivalists in a post-apocalyptic wasteland—but I don't recall anyone ever writing in to complain about the analogy. Nevertheless, "road warrior" is now a full-bore cliché, and any romantic force it retains from its action/adventure origins is slowly dripping away like fuel from a leaking gasoline drum.


FOLLOWUP: 'Road warriors' in Google Books results

According to the Internet Movie Database, The Road Warrior was the most popular feature film released in 1981, beating out Raiders of the Lost Ark, Gallipoli, Stripes, and Mommie Dearest for the top spot. I don't know what criteria IMDb uses to gauge popularity, since The Road Warrior is only third on the list of top grossing films for 1981, and twenty-sixth on the site's list of highest rated feature films of the year. In any case it was a very popular film.

Here is an Ngram chart for the terms "road warrior" (blue line) and "road warriors (red line) for the years 1950–2005:

And here, as a kind of magnified view, is an Ngram chart for the same terms for the years 1970–1990:

As these results suggest, a Google Books finds no legitimate matches for "road warrior" and "road warriors" before 1981—strong evidence that term arose after (and probably because of) the movie.

Not surprisingly, the earliest matches for "road warrior" and "road warriors" involve people traveling in motor vehicles. For example, from "PM's Dollarwise Guide to 1984 Imports" in Popular Mechanics (March 1984):

[Mitsubishi] Tredia—See Cordia. Same mechanicals, different bodies. Models include a turbocar, featuring the blackout - is - beautiful theme, bigger tires, new alloy wheels, extended air dam. Road warriors will appreciate Tredia's "soft-feel gun grip" shifter knob.

And from World's Fair, volumes 2–8 (date uncertain, though Google Books claims 1982) [snippet view]:

About a million road warriors and their families from all over the world burn rubber to get to the Windy City during its coldest season in order to see and buy the new spring models [at the annual Chicago Auto Show], the 800 to 900 cars and trucks on indoor display at Chicago's waterfront.

Other early instances of the term arise in the context of sports, from tennis to professional wrestling.

That the term has been used in the context of mobile computing for a long time is evident from the article "Road Warriors: 11 Laptops Battle It Out," in the July 1987 issue of PC Magazine, which describes how light and convenient laptop computers have become:

Taking DOS on the road in 1982 meant lugging a 31-pound Compaq Portable through airports. Now you have your choice of a half-dozen 10- to 15-pound laptops you can perch on your knees without being tethered to an AC line; a 15-pound AT-compatible hardly bigger than a loose-leaf notebook; battery- and AC-powered PC-, XT-, and AT-compatible lunchbox looking affairs; and other variations.

This instance is noteworthy in part because, unlike the automotive examples, it explicitly alludes to air travel; the only road involved is a metaphorical one. It is also interesting because it identifies the laptop computers, not the travelers carrying them, as the "road warriors."

"Road warriors" as a term for travelers seems to have gotten its start in automotive magazines; the extension of the term to travel by air as well as road may well have originated in sports writing. The computing connection arose later (reflecting the later emergence of practical mobile computing), but I think that it contributed significantly to the rise in usage of "road warriors" that occurred between 1990 and 2000. The ultimate source of the term is the 1981 Mad Max movie.

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  • "Some movies emerge as cultural touchstones for a particular audience" - The Road Warrior certainly qualifies as that for us Gen-X'ers.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Apr 30, 2015 at 11:32
  • I like this answer...that it does come from mad max and got to the buttoned up business world via more geekishly inclined people. That makes sense. I'm still curious if it could predate the movie though. Commented Apr 30, 2015 at 13:01
  • it is almost inconceivable anyone could know the "micro-etymology" of the phrase. Sven, you have utterly no clue - at all - whatsoever - in any way - about whether the phrase was first used by a computer magazine, a Samsonite tv ad .. or whatever. Regarding the question "could it predate the movie"? The answer is absolutely yes, that's possible. There are utterly no facts - zero - presented on this page. So we're no closer whatsoever to knowing that.
    – Fattie
    Commented Apr 30, 2015 at 14:33
  • @JoeBlow: You're right, of course, that my original answer didn't establish that "road warrior" first caught on as a figurative term for "traveler" in the context of computing. Nor did I intend for readers to draw that inference. To clarify my understanding of the situation, I've added a discussion of relevant Google Books search results. These, too, are far from dispositive, but they do support the intuitively sensible notion that the term was first used figuratively in the context of automobiles. I apologize for greatly lengthening an answer that may already have seemed intolerably long.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Apr 30, 2015 at 20:01
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This is a reference to the indie Australian movie Mad Max II from the early 80's (that made Mel Gibson famous). The original Mad Max was not well-known outside of Australia at the time*, so in the USA in particular it went by the subtitled "Mad Max II: The Road Warrior", or often just "The Road Warrior".

Workers who are sent out of the office on trips a lot (in the USA at least) are said to be "on the road" (that may or may not have to do with the Jack Kerouac book by that name).

In The Road Warrior the main character was a loner with no real home who spent a lot of time driving around. So the leap of equating that character to a worker who gets sent on business trips a lot isn't a huge one.

I first heard the term applied to business people from commercials here in the USA pitched to the frequent traveler. In that context, it seemed to me it was being used to be humorous and attention catching, and to imply to the prospective customer that there was something noble and heroic about their frequent trips. It is possible businesses are starting to pick up that usage for a lot of the same reasons.

* - This was imminently fair IMHO. The Road Warrior was (and is) a far more interesting movie than Mad Max.

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  • I saw The Road Warrior first, and only later went back and watched Mad Max. Weird! Almost completely different movies. And yeah, Mad Max lacked pretty much everything interesting in The Road Warrior.
    – KRyan
    Commented Apr 30, 2015 at 13:23
  • Well, in its defense, the original was very low-budget for an action film, even for its day and definitely by today's standards. Mad Max's final budget was in the US$400k range, which would be about $1.3 million in today's dollars. The original theatrical release of Star Wars two years prior cost $11 million, and ten years before that, Planet of the Apes cost $5.8 million and looks very cheap and cheesy today. Fury Road, the latest Mad Max installment opening in May, had a production budget of $150 million, and even that's fairly modest for a summer blockbuster.
    – KeithS
    Commented Apr 30, 2015 at 19:52
  • The thing about Mad Max is that it was a fairly pedestrian (sorry for the pun) entry in the genre of right-wing crime revenge, with the main distinguishing characteristic of being a bit more car-based. Road Warrior OTOH was an original post-apocalyptic morality tale, with a fairly innovative punk sense of style. More like a car-based Escape from New York.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Apr 30, 2015 at 22:34
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Google finds the book Consultative Selling by Mack Hanan which contains the words

Today's account managers -- no longer Arthur Miller's road warrior, who was "out there with a suitcase and a smile" -- carry improved profits, not products in their bag.

The book was purportedly published in 1970 (though there is a possibility that these words, apparently in an introduction, were added in a later printing). Mad Max was 1979.

It seems reasonable to believe that the term has been used to refer to traveling salesmen and the like for a long time -- this is the sort of usage that would not make it into serious publications.

But Ngrams definitely shows the term taking off in 1980, so it's also reasonable to assume that Mad Max popularized the term.

As to the claim that it's an "odd term" to use for a traveling salesman, I've often heard the metaphor of "going forth to do battle" applied to going to work, especially when traveling is involved. One needs to understand that the "warrior" is not fighting "the road", but, in Willy Loman's case, fighting other forces (ie, the economy and his own poor sales abilities).

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  • HL is perfectly correct that it may predate the film. Unfortunately we don't know. But it's overwhelmingly the case that any native English speaker using it in an ad, etc, since the movie would realise they're using a "famous movie title". {Although the movie is now so long ago that young peope will start to think it is 'just a phrase" ....... this is exactly how "common phrases" come in to being.}
    – Fattie
    Commented Apr 30, 2015 at 14:35
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    I found a similar link to Consultative Selling in Google Books, with a supposed publication date of 1970. But the title page identifies it as the "7th edition," and gives a copyright date of "© 2004, 1999, 1995, 1990, 1985, 1973, and 1970 Mark Hanan." Absent a verifiable copy of the 1970 or 1973 edition of the book with the "road warrior" reference in place, I view the pre-1981 origin with great skepticism.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Apr 30, 2015 at 19:28
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The other answers here are staggeringly, mind-bogglingly, astoundingly over-complicated.

All you need to write as an answer is this:

"OP, it comes from a well-known film title."

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    If you are primarily commenting on strategies used in other answers, shouldn't this either be a comment or a post in meta?
    – T.E.D.
    Commented May 20, 2015 at 17:06

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