Yesterday, I received this e-mail from a Chinese scholar in the PRC:
I'm very sorry that fax machine can’t receive your fax because of mishandled by pen pusher.
My goodness! How does he know such a colloquial expression as "pen pusher"?
When I asked that question of some friends, Brendan O'Kane wrote back: "Online dictionaries are responsible for the occasional hypercolloquialism — http://www.nciku.com/search/en/detail/pen+pusher/1300456 . What I want to know is whether an analogous Chinese-Spanish dictionary will give 'cagatintas'."
Seriously, though, why would Chinese-English dictionary makers bother to dredge up such an obscure term as "pen pusher"? It only occurs twice in the 400 million word Corpus of Historical American English (COHA), once in the 1950s and once in the 1970s.
Although I'm around office workers much of the day, I can't say that I've ever heard the term "pen pusher" used in the way my Chinese colleague does in the sentence quoted above. To figure out what he really meant, I had to consult the Urban Dictionary:
Un-needed, beaureucratic [sic] employee not making any difference and hampering efficiency
Our overheads are not to blame for the shortfall, it's those damn pen pushers.
Maybe that's the exact sense my Chinese colleague wanted to convey. He wanted a pejorative, disdainful term for the person in his office who prevented my fax from reaching him in a timely fashion. If he had said "clerk" or "office worker," the effect just would not have been the same. Still, it's rather jarring to encounter such an informal usage in the writing of someone who is not yet in full command of standard English.
[Thanks to Michael Carr for introducing me to COHA.]