mid-14c., "table especially adapted for convenience in reading or writing," from Medieval Latin desca "table to write on" (mid-13c.), ultimately from Latin discus "quoit, platter, dish," from Greek diskos (see disk (n.)).
The Medieval Latin word is perhaps via Italian desco. Used figuratively of office or clerical work since 1797. Meaning "a department responsible for a particular subject or operation at a large organization" is by 1918, probably earlier, though it is not always possible tell whether a literal desk is meant or not. Sense of "reception desk at a hotel, etc." is by 1963. Desk job, one that is done at a desk as opposed to at a work-bench or in the field, is attested by 1900; desk-work "work done at a desk" is by 1826.