phrases, sayings, idioms and expressions at

Pushing the envelope

Posted by SR on October 30, 2003

In Reply to: Pushing the envelope posted by Word Camel on October 30, 2003

: : : What is implied by the expression a "moving envelope"? In a discussion group (of which I am a member) somebody recently wrote:

: : : ". . . there are obviously tons of people doing a good job of teaching. Look at the moving envelope of research in about any discipline."

: : : Another member of the group commented on this by saying:

: : : "The prose of this offering (tons of people, the moving envelope of research) doesn't inspire much confidence."

: : : Perhaps people are not best measured in tons, but at least this expression is clear. "Moving envelope" on the other hand - I can't even make a guess as to what it may mean.

: : : Best
: : : Anders

: : There is no such expression; what the poster meant was the expanding envelope, boundaries, parameters, etc, of research. The poor choices in wording was what the response was complaining about.

: The expression "pushing the envelope" is very common right now in the US, at least in New York. It does mean pushing the boundries. Perhaps the poster substituted "move" for "push". Unfortunately I don't know the origin of the term.

the idiom "pushing the envelope"!

There seems to be general agreement that the expression originally referred to the "performance envelope" of (especially fighter) aircraft. Mike Lake defines this "envelope" as "limitations on air speed, rate of climb and descent, and rate of direction change within which a particular aircraft can be safely and efficiently operated." Gregg Derrick and David Wigtil add that various values such as velocity, altitude, cargo weight limits, etc.
can all be represented graphically; and that such a graph typically resembles a "misshapen trapezoid" referred to as an "envelope". As several other respondants pointed out, this usage represents a borrowing or extension of the
mathematical sense of "envelope", i.e. "a curve or surface that is tangent to all curves or surfaces of a family of curves or surfaces" (American Heritage Dictionary).

In its original aviation context, then, "pushing the envelope" presumably meant pushing a plane in test flight up to and even beyond its known
endurance limits in order to find out its exact capabilities. The idiom is apparently American in origin, dating back (at least) to the late
1940's. It may have first referred to the breaking of the sound barrier by test pilot Chuck Yeager (Brian Gessell informs me that the aircraft
involved was the X-1).

"Pushing the envelope", along with a lot of other "pilot-jargon", has been greatly popularized by Tom Wolfe's _The Right Stuff_ and more recently, it seems, by the film "Top Gun" Thus the expression has been appearing more
frequently in what Art Medlar calls "techno-nerd conversations" both in and out of the field of aviation.
Paul Kershaw makes an interesting observation: his sense is that the idiom retains a slightly negative connotation of "going beyond what is considered safe" (perhaps as in, "hot dog" pilots risking life, limb and expensive equipment to show off...).