Pen Pusher

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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 — . 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.]


  1. Peter said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 10:53 pm

    Your Chinese colleague might have meant that there was some technical glitch with the fax.

  2. Private Zydeco said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 11:16 pm

    " 'Cagatintas' "… That's approximately one certifiable gem! (ROFL!)

  3. River said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 11:36 pm

    I think this might be a US/UK difference. A quick Google check shows the expression is much more common in UK media (Guardian: 98 hits, BBC: 107 hits) than US (CNN: 3 hits, NYT: 9 hits). I, as someone from the UK, certainly wouldn't be at all surprised to hear it being used with that meaning.

  4. LE said,

    September 28, 2010 @ 11:49 pm

    Maybe they meant to use pencil pusher instead? I hear that a lot more often than pen pusher, even if COHA (if I'm searching & reading it right) only has one entry for it.

  5. Chris Waugh said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 12:22 am

    Is it really that rare? Could 'pen pusher' be more common in other dialects of English outside North America? I ask, because I didn't find the quoted email quite so jarring and I note you refer to an American corpus.

  6. alfanje said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 12:22 am

    I'm Spanish (mid-thirties) It's the first time I've read "cagatintas" (I just checked and it does appear in the DRAE) I think that instead "chupatintas" is/was quite common. Old-fashioned as people do no longer use pens that require ink to be sucked.

    "Online dictionaries are responsible for the occasional hypercolloquialism"
    Great sentence.

  7. Sean Edison-Albright said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 12:29 am

    Chris: Pen pusher sounds odd to me — I'd have expected pencil pusher.

  8. tudza said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 1:54 am

    Pen-neck geek?

  9. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 2:01 am

    Another AmE vote that "pen pusher" sounds to my ear like a weird non-standard variant of "pencil pusher." "Tell all those pencil pushers / Better get out of my way" – R. Van Zant. But see also

  10. galthran said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 2:51 am

    A business associate from Anhui told me last week he'd be "out of pocket" for the next week or two – I don't even use that expression myself! I then had to delicately delve further to make sure he didn't mean he was out of money… he did use it the way I first interpreted it though.

  11. iching said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 3:22 am

    As a former public servant here in Australia I am very familiar with the term "pen pusher". It is standard and commonplace here as a derogatory word for an office-bound bureaucrat. By the way is the term "public servant" used in AmE or is "government employee" preferred? The term "pencil pusher" sound weird. The email is impressively idiomatic, except for the omitted definite and indefinite articles before "fax machine" and "pen pusher" respectively (excusable in email) and "mishandled" instead of "mishandling".

  12. Don Sample said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 3:26 am

    Another possibility: could this be a colloquial Chinese expression that got translated literally into English?

  13. Cecily said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 4:41 am

    As a Brit, I've never heard "pencil pusher" but, as others have said, "pen pusher" is not uncommon. I assume that the source was more familiar with BrE than AmE (it can happen!).

  14. Will said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 4:45 am

    AmE speaker here who has never heard either "pen pusher" or "pencil pusher". I too consulted urban dictionary to find out what this meant (I looked it up there before I even read the line about Victor looking it up there). Granted, I don't and have never worked for a government entity or bureaucratic company, so the term never had a chance to be useful to me (nobody I work with or around fits the description).

    To answer itching's question, "government employee" sounds much more normal and colloquial to me. "public servant" sounds a bit pretentious.

  15. Scott said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 5:29 am

    I'm another American who has never heard "pen pusher" before. "Pencil pusher" on the other hand seems like a perfectly normal, common expression.

  16. Nicholas Waller said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 5:33 am

    "An army of pen pushers" is a pretty common phrase in the UK, for instance in this Telegraph report complaining about Eurocrats: ""It is incredible that while our own army is overstretched there is a growing army of pen pushers across the EU, many of them dedicated to creating ever more red tape."

    Napoleon apparently said "The ancients had a great advantage over us in that their armies were not trailed by a second army of pen-pushers", though in that case it seems he was talking about historians (or journalists) rather than logistics types.

  17. Alan Palmer said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 5:48 am

    I've heard both "pen pusher" and "pencil pusher" used (BrE), and since I work for a public body, could perhaps be described as one. The phrase is perhaps and example of fossilised language, since most of us sit in front of a computer to work, and make little use of pens or pencils nowadays. In fact, the use of faxes is going in the same direction; I can't remember when we last received a fax – two or three years ago, at a guess.

  18. Ray Girvan said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 6:28 am

    I'm also surprised at its rarity in the US corpus; maybe the corpus didn't draw from enough niche sources? I may be misremembering, but from younger days reading a lot of Heinleinesque two-fisted SF stories and novels, I seem to recall it as a staple term of abuse for bureaucrats (along with "desk jockey") by Colonel Badass characters.

  19. Ray Girvan said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 6:35 am

    PS And not forgetting "quill-driver", that I thought was a pseudo-archaic modern coinage, but isn't.

  20. Alon Lischinsky said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 8:12 am

    @alfanje: that mostly reflects your reading habits. CORDE only yields three results in the 20th century, being as it is strongly skewed towards Peninsular usage, but even a quick look through Google Books shows ample evidence of its being in common use in the Americas. Even in Spain, Julio Caro Baroja made a point of using it extensively.

  21. S. Norman said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 8:45 am

    'Paper pusher' is the term I inherited from my parents.

  22. tim finin said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 9:00 am

    'Pencil pusher' is very familiar to me but 'pen pusher' is new. Google reports 33K results for the first phrase and 45K for the second.

  23. John Walden said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 9:03 am

    I'm with the first poster: isn't this some kind of translation of a piece of a fax machine? I speak from zero knowledge of Chinese but an intuition that it might mean 'your fax got chewed up/lost by the ink-jet/printer-head/thingy'.

    I'm very familiar with 'pen-pusher' as a term for 'bureacrat' but 'pencil-pusher' doesn't sound right. It lacks that Dickensian image of the high desk and the clerk's laborious filling-in by hand of forms and ledgers. I'm surprised that it should be AmE and 'pen-pusher' BrE.

    Unless pen and ink were too high-tech for our erstwhile colonies?

    (Please, imagine lots of smiley emoticons here)

  24. Ken Brown said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 9:49 am

    "Pencil pusher" doesn't cut it for a bureaucrat for me. Pens are the traditional tool of the clerk, the scholar, and the officious official. Pencils are a modern invention (and probably an English one) and mostly associated with schoolchildren and artists. A much cuddlier implement.

    "Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen." But not with a *pencil*.

  25. Theodore said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 10:29 am

    I'll add another American English data point to the growing evidence that "pencil pusher" is American and "pen pusher" is British. I don't think I ever heard "pen pusher" before this. I think I've mostly heard "pencil pusher" in reference to accounting. I'm not sure if the pencil pushers report to the bean counters or vice-versa.

    I'm also with Peter and John Walden in wondering if the original message was meant to report a technical failure. Is there a Chinese colloquialism for a fax printing mechanism (or component thereof) that's identical or similar to another Chinese colloquialism for a bureaucrat?

  26. Ellen K. said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 10:34 am

    Ken, what's the point of your post? Okay, you personally don't like it. Fine. How is that relevant? That doesn't, after all, change the fact that it's a common expression.

    The general definition (looking at free online dictionaries) seems to be one who does a lot of paperwork rather than a bureaucrat. Two categories with overlap of course.

  27. Ken Brown said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 10:47 am

    @Ellen K. said: "Ken, what's the point of your post?" Just a friendly comment. And where did I say I objected to people using it or didn't like it? Maybe the two phrases have overlapping ranges of meaning rather than being precise alternative ways of saying the same thing.

  28. Mary Bull said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 11:01 am

    Personal data: age 83; Southern U.S.; undergraduate major, English literature.

    Data points: Here's one U.S. American to whom the term "pen pusher" felt totally natural. Can't remember encountering it lately, but used to hear it, and perhaps it also got entrenched in my head from such classic English texts as Dickens and his contemporaries, as mentioned in one comment above, or from reading SF of the Heinlein era, as another commenter recalled. But I never heard of "pencil pusher" before reading this column today.

  29. Geraint Jennings said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 11:21 am

    Quick UK news search:
    In today's Daily Mail: "What would be saved by cutting back 60,000 MOD pen pushers? Remember, it's not just their salaries but also the office space and accumulating pension entitlement."
    In yesterday's Bath Chronicle: "Shadow employment minister Jim Knight said Britain plays a leading international role in defence manufacturing. He said: "There is a widespread attack on Government spending that assumes everyone in the public sector is just a penpusher."
    In the Daily Express of 22 September: "Our taxpayers face paying hundreds of millions of pounds a year for the fat cat retirement packages of an army of EU pen-pushers."

    (Can fat cats push pens as an army?)

  30. Ellen K. said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 11:38 am

    Ken, you said: "Pencil pusher" doesn't cut it for a bureaucrat for me.

    That looks like criticism of the of the phrase, and does NOT look like questioning the particular definition of the phrase. If I read what you said rather than inferring something unsaid, well, that's a limitation of mine.

  31. C Thornett said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 11:48 am

    I concur with the two posters who think that the reference is probably to a mechanical part of the fax machine, perhaps a print head, or the ribbon-like thingy (to be technical) that moves the print head in some printers.

  32. A said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 12:11 pm

    As for "How does he know such a colloquial expression as _______" / "why would Chinese-English dictionary makers bother to dredge up such an obscure term as _______" …

    I imagine that a relatively obscure English term gets into a dictionary so that an English speaker trying to convey such a notion has an approximation in Chinese — that is, it's meant for the English-to-Chinese translation. Dictionary makers probably flip it around in the Chinese-to-English portion for completeness (or boosting the number of entries). I've come up with really weird Chinese sentences doing sort of the same thing.

  33. Karen said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 1:01 pm

    My father once told me – on probably no real evidence whatsoever – that pencil pushers pushed pencils instead of pens because they made lots of mistakes.

  34. John said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 1:38 pm

    44-yr-old NYC-born and raised. Never heard pen-pusher before this post; it's always pencils that get pushed.

    (Plus it's trochaic.)

    And we get faxes here all the time.

  35. William Ockham said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 2:08 pm

    I'm pretty certain that "pen pusher" refers to the hardware on the fax machine. When fax machines were invented (back in the 1800's believe it or not), they literally pushed pens to receive faxes.

  36. Kevin Iga said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 2:20 pm

    Er, why can't Victor just ask the colleague who sent him the email message what he meant by the term "pen pusher"? It sounds like the more reliable way to find out whether he is talking about a bureaucrat or a component of a fax machine.

    On another note, is there a British version of COHA that we can use to compare "pen pusher" with "pencil pusher"?

  37. John said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 2:57 pm

    Having lived on both sides of the Atlantic, I didn't flinch at 'pen pusher'. I'd normally go to 'pencil pusher' or 'desk jockey' to express the sentiment, though.

    Let's not forget their close cousins, the 'bean counters'.

  38. Carl Burke said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 3:06 pm

    'Pencil-pusher' is standard for me as well (51 years old, Great Lakes/mid-Atlantic US); I never heard 'pen-pusher' before this post. Desk jockey, bean counter, those are standard (to me) synonyms or near-synonyms for pencil pusher. 'Out of pocket' is something I commonly hear, but only after I began working with ex-military folks.

  39. Acilius said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 3:07 pm

    @S. Norman: "Paper-pusher"- That rang a bell for me, so I googled it. Up came several screens of hits, all apparently stemming from an episode of the Star Trek in which Captain Kirk denounces someone as a "desk-bound paper-pusher."

  40. sisofabc said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 4:05 pm

    Here's another vote for "paper-pusher", connoting mindless bureaucrat, unthinking desk jockey, or a general organizational space-waster. As a 50-something American, it is a very familiar term, while I don't believe I have ever encountered "pen-pusher". "Pencil-pusher" is a term I have heard, though it sounds awkward to my ear.

  41. Victor Mair said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 4:27 pm

    @Kevin Iga

    I'll ask him (and request that he reply in Chinese!).

  42. Victor Mair said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 5:44 pm

    The COHA is still beta testing. The OED gives

    S.v. pencil

    pencil pusher U.S., a derogatory term for one whose occupation involves much writing with a pencil;

    S.v. pen-pusher

    One who is engaged in writing or desk work; a clerk; a writer (freq. derogatory).

    1911 Busy Man's Mag. Jan. 65/2 That fellow was a pen⁓pusher in a dough joint—I mean a bank clerk. 1930 Time & Tide 24 May 663/2 Clerking! My God, any tuppenny ha'penny pen-pusher can be a clerk. 1940 Manch. Guardian Weekly 22 Mar. 228 From his point of view it is much better to be a pen-pusher in‥obscurity than a corpse. 1948 ‘N. Shute’ No Highway vii. 173 Who the hell are you, anyway? Just a bloody penpusher. 1952 A. Grimble Pattern of Islands 177, I do not suppose that George was particularly interested in Stevenson as a writing man—he never had much time for pen-pushers, as he called them. 1954 Wodehouse Jeeves & Feudal Spirit ix. 80 Florence tells me that La Morehead is one of the more costly of our female pen-pushers and has to have purses of gold flung to her in great profusion before she will sign on the dotted line. 1957 J. Braine Room at Top iii. 31, I saw myself, compared with him, as the Town Hall Clerk, the subordinate pen-pusher, halfway to being a zombie, and I tasted the sourness of envy. 1972 Guardian 23 Oct. 9/3 The more assiduous pen-pushers among London Transport's 6,000 administrative, technical, clerical and control staff.

    So ˈpen-pushing vbl. n., writing by hand.

    1936 ‘G. Orwell’ Keep Aspidistra Flying iii. 61 He dreaded‥going to work.‥ Pen-pushing in some filthy office—God! 1952 A. Grimble Pattern of Islands 179, I knew that Charles Workman would have made a better job of the pen-pushing than I did. 1972 W. A. Pantin Oxf. Life iv. 53 These volumes represent a great mass of praiseworthy industry‥, whether pen-pushing or typewriter-bashing.

  43. John Cowan said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 6:35 pm

    Ken Brown: Pencils have been around since 1565, when a huge deposit of solid graphite — the only one of its kind ever found, in fact — was discovered near Borrowdale in England; the locals first used it to mark sheep. However, the idea of putting a graphite stick between two shaped pieces of wood and gluing them together is probably an Italian invention of the late 17th century. Modern pencils use graphite powder mixed with clay and baked.

    So the English were involved, and pencils are nothing like as old as pens, but not so very modern as all that either.

  44. Victor Mair said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 6:48 pm

    All right, I have received the definitive answer to the question we've all been asking: is a "pen pusher" a mangled version of a term that designates a part of a fax machine or does it refer to an office worker?

    The following reply just arrived from my Chinese correspondent:


    我先前信中“pen pusher”一词的意思是“办公室工作人员”,不知该词是否会引发歧义?如有,则请见谅!


    Translation: The meaning of the term "pen pusher" in my recent message is "office worker." I wonder whether this term might lead to ambiguity. If so, please forgive me!

  45. The Ridger said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 7:09 pm

    I have to chime in to say that today on Jeopardy! one of the clues was "this two-word term describes a person whose tedious job involves a lot of writing and record keeping" – and yes, the answer was "pencil pusher" and the contestant got it right away.

  46. Tae said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 11:22 pm


    Thanks for bringing this to our attention.
    We'll have the nciku staff review the (UK) term "pen-pusher," and make the necessary adjustments to the entry.

    As for the term "pen-pusher," I believe it is primarily a UK term, similar to "pencil pusher" and "paper pusher" in the US.


  47. tablogloid said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 11:27 pm

    Even more jarring to you might be, "some pen pusher in the veal fattening pen two rows away."

  48. Kevin said,

    September 29, 2010 @ 11:47 pm

    Found the culprit:文员

    Iciba is the online version of Kingsoft's PowerWord / 金山词霸 software, which this blog has previously linked with inappropriate translations (see , , )

    The nciku entry linked in the OP is in the English-Chinese section; "pen pusher" doesn't appear in the definition of any Chinese word in nciku.

  49. Mary Bull said,

    September 30, 2010 @ 5:42 am

    I'm a complete anomaly, then, as far as Americans go, since I never heard "pencil pusher" but found "pen pusher" entirely familiar. Guess even though I was born in Texas and grew up there and have lived in Tennessee and Kentucky for the past 63 years my true home is the UK.

    Make room for me, London! :)

  50. Colin John said,

    September 30, 2010 @ 7:15 am

    Mary Bull – Plenty of room for you and your husband John.

    P.S. Another BrE speaker for whom pen-pusher is the normal expression (though I had come across pencil-pusher).

  51. S. Norman said,

    September 30, 2010 @ 9:15 am,177868295

    For 'paper pusher' I see a lot of quotes from military/police sources like:
    "I get it, not everyone in the military is a grunt but it'd be nice to know we (gruntlings) can pull a paper-pusher into our squads from any service in an emergency and repel an attack effectively."

    Also, a lot of businesses use it as a pun(especially computer paper supliers).

    'Pencil pusher' seems to be the fav pun for artists and cartoon web-sites.
    'Pen pusher' for bloggers and writers.

  52. Robert Morris said,

    September 30, 2010 @ 10:13 am

    I must confess to having never heard either "pen pusher" or "pencil pusher." In fact, when I read the message, I figured he was referring to some mechanical part of the fax machine that is responsible for printing the output (e.g., perhaps their fax machine has an inkjet-style printing mechanism, and the part responsible for moving the cartridge—let's call it a "pen pusher"—malfunctioned).

    Made sense to me … ish. :)

  53. Victor Mair said,

    September 30, 2010 @ 11:08 am


    Thanks for tracking down the culprit to iciba. BTW, to make Kevin's URL take you directly to the desired page at iciba, please note that the Chinese characters at the end need to be included in the URL, thus:文员
    The address as given by Kevin is "live" only up to .com/


    As Kevin pointed out in the last paragraph of his post, the problem did not stem from nciku, which has "pen pusher" only in the English-Chinese section.

  54. Don said,

    September 30, 2010 @ 12:21 pm

    Last night on Jeopardy, in a category where all of the correct responses involved alliteration, the correct response to one of the clues (the easiest one in the category, according to its dollar value) was, "What is a pencil pusher?" A contestant immediately came up with the correct response.

  55. The Ridger said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 5:56 am

    Also, today's Boston Globe has a story called "Pencil pushers:
    Redesigned version of the Blackwing 602 writes new chapter for graphite lovers"

  56. Stephen Smith said,

    October 3, 2010 @ 1:41 am

    I'd always heard it as "paper pusher." And by "always heard it" I mean that it was the focal point of a Rugrats episode. One of the toddlers who was the focus of the show had a dream about their mom or dad's workplace, and I guess the expression stuck with them because it was this dystopian office building that was just full of paper and they were literally pushing it with brooms. Other people around my age (22) who watched Nickelodeon a lot as a kid might remember it.

  57. LINAR said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 1:52 am

    Awesome. The nciku link is dead thanks to pointing this out. If one goes to the URL above, one now gets the following message:
    The entry currently has no meaning,
    we apologize for the inconvenience.


    (I knew "paper pusher", but could easily understand "pen pusher" as his meaning. Perhaps I'm too accustomed to random slang failures in CH->EN.)

  58. LINAR said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 1:53 am

    I'm also apparently too accustomed to writing sentences full of fail. Extra awesome. :)

  59. Nina Xu said,

    March 31, 2011 @ 3:01 am

    I found another example of misusing the term in Global Times,March 30, 2011. Under the title “Three outspoken academics”, it goes,"In June 2005, he announced that he would no longer recruit graduate students in protest against the education system, notably the flawed examination system that discriminates against the most talented in favor of pen-pushers." I guess, the author probably thought that it's a similar expression with ‘bookworm’.

  60. Bob Wilson said,

    July 1, 2011 @ 10:16 am

    "My goodness! How does he know such a colloquial expression as "pen pusher"?…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."

    "Pen pusher" is very common in the UK, I would be surprised if someone from the UK didn't know its meaning. Perhaps the Chinese scholar spent some time in the UK, or somewhere else where "pen pusher" is commonly used.

    No, "pen pusher" is not the same as "bookworm".

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