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?
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.
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.